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The sustainable character of the biobased economy tends not to receive enough attention. Biomass is always more sustainable than fossil raw materials, isn’t it? Often that is so, but not all the time. Whatever the case may be, research is needed so that an objective comparison can be made in different domains.
Lucien Joppen

‘Biomass is under the magnifying glass,’ according to Yvonne van der Meer, associate professor of Biobased Materials at Maastricht University. ‘Often no questions are asked about the provenance of fossil raw materials. Does the oil come from Nigeria or is it offshore? With biomass it is a totally different story. Is there competition with food? What are the effects on soil health or biodiversity? We can complain about this, but that does not get us anywhere. We must be able to prove whether biomass is actually the most sustainable solution for a particular application.’ The latter is far from being a bonus, according to Van der Meer. ‘Sustainability is an important unique selling point. If biobased products score lower on that point than fossil products, this advantage is lost. That is certainly the case with drop-ins. It is a different story for biobased propositions with product properties which perform better.’

Triple P

Van der Meer believes that sustainability goes further than the environment. Soil health, land use, CO2 emissions and biodiversity (editor’s note: see, for example, the consequences of old-growth felling) are hot issues, but only cover part of the spectrum. ‘It is also about developing the (local) economy and social aspects, such as the consequences for employment or fair pay.’ At the AMIBM (Aachen Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials), Van der Meer intends investigating the extent to which the above domains – the 3 Ps of people, planet and profit – can be combined in a model. ‘The ultimate aim is to develop an internationally accepted model for calculating the sustainability level of biobased products. We live in a global economy with raw material streams which are transported all over the world.’

Aiming at greater sustainability

In drawing up sustainability criteria for biobased products, Van der Meer advocates an ambitious approach in which the chain players are encouraged to raise the sustainability level. Minimum requirements are needed, but in the end they do not challenge the sector. In the production of biofuels, additional routes which result in products with higher added value (e.g. coatings) can make the entire chain more sustainable and more profitable. Consider sugar valorisation whereby non-energy routes are explored. The fact is that biomass will be ‘harvested’ to an increasing degree from residual and waste streams. So less competition with food and no unnecessary logging, but waste wood or residual streams from the agrofood sector. Alongside wind and solar, biomass will continue to play an important part in achieving the objective of 14 percent renewable energy in 2020.Sustainable biomass

Plenty of challenges

According to Van der Meer, companies, so also the SME, must eventually be able to quantify the above sustainability factors sufficiently so that production routes and products can be compared in terms of people-planet-profit, given that the formula green = sustainable by no means always holds true. Van der Meer believes that there are still several challenges facing the quantification of sustainability. This is partly due to missing or incomplete data and because certain factors such as biodiversity are extremely difficult to measure. It is not just a matter of figures, but also of weighting. Certain factors simply weigh more heavily than others. The development of the local economy in Indonesia plays a different part to that in the United States, just to name an example. ‘Certainly we are also trying at the AMIBM, together with stakeholders, to determine how we can put this into practice. The research in this area is not purely academic; it is actually directly linked to the applications in real life.’