A new scoping paper from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers the first analysis on the circular economy and the ‘biocycle’, the flows of organic matter that concentrate in our towns and cities, a significant but largely untapped economic opportunity there for the taking.
While the past six years have seen substantial research on the circular economy, it’s mostly focused on technical products like phones, cars, buildings and packaging. These kind of items come with a relatively straightforward circular economy story. With the right business model and some design tweaks, if you can get a product back and reuse, repair or remanufacture it, there’s value to be had. If you can share the asset between multiple people, providing ‘access over ownership’, even better. But with biological stuff like food, water, textiles or chemicals, this formula doesn’t work in the same way.
Urban Biocycles, written and published as part of the Project MainStream collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, seeks to present an initial exploration of the circular economy opportunities for this biocycle economy. The hope is that the study will spark future analysis and lead the way to a deeper understanding of the biological side of the circular economy.
The analysis highlights ‘the opportunities to capture value, in the form of the energy, nutrients and materials embedded in these flows, through the application of circular economy principles’. Today, the processing of organic waste is seen as a costly problem to be minimised and managed. But the authors of Urban Biocycles say it doesn’t have to be that way. Viewing these flows through the lens of a circular economy can lead to the design of more effective recovery and processing systems that turn organic waste into a source of value and contribute to restoring natural capital – the world’s stocks of natural assets including soil, air, water and all living things.
To shine a light on the areas that deserve further analysis, this research contains some clear examples of how to derive value from waste.
Degraded agricultural land requires more fertilisers to remain productive, but the “nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) nutrients recovered from food, animal and human waste streams on a global scale could contribute nearly 2.7 times the nutrients contained within the volumes of chemical fertiliser currently used.”
It’s not just about physical stuff – processing organic matter could be a valuable source of energy too. “Recovering energy in the wastewater sector is attractive, as it can offset the energy required for treatment”, say the authors, pointing to an example of a plant in Denmark that produces more electricity than it needs for its operations, making it a net exporter of power.
One important part of the picture that is less conventional is the biorefinery. These operate in a similar way to petrochemical refineries, but use organic waste material to manufacture a range of products and materials that normally come from fossil fuels. Drawing on existing research conducted in the Netherlands, it’s estimated that a network of biorefinery hubs in Amsterdam could have a potential net value of EUR 30 million per year, whilst reducing CO2 emissions by 100,000 tonnes and yield material savings of 25,000 tonnes.
This evidence and case studies contained in Urban Biocycles don’t try to paint a full picture of the biocycle. Instead, the paper teases us with a fraction of the benefits that could be found when the circular economy is applied to biological stuff – now we just need to dig deeper.
Lead image: ©️ xiebiyun / stock.adobe.com