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Forestry biomass potential

Using the full potential of forestry biomass through improved mobilisation and the creation of new products and markets.

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Private sector are part of the solution, bioeconomy experts say

The private sector has a key role to play in promoting bioeconomy in the agrifood sector. However, the risk of depriving the food production system of organic resources must be weighed up.
Commission calls for bioeconomy strategies to be expanded and implemented

Under the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Commission will not approve the national strategic plan of a member state that does not include the promotion of the bioeconomy in agriculture, the EU's Farming Commissioner Phil Hogan has said.
Private sector are part of the solution, bioeconomy experts say (21/05/2019)
The private sector has a key role to play in promoting bioeconomy in the agrifood sector. However, the risk of depriving the food production system of organic resources must be weighed up.
The bio-based private sector contributes 4.2% to Europe's GDP. It generates €621 billion added value and around €2 trillion in annual turnover. It also employed 18 million people in 2015, of which more than two-thirds were in agriculture and food manufacturing sectors.

However, the labour productivity gains of agriculture, forestry and fishing remained at €20,000 per person employed in the 2008-2015 period, below the industry average in other sectors of €34,000 per person employed.

Launched in 2013, the EU Commission's bioeconomy strategy was initially conceived as a way to encourage the foundation of post-petroleum energy independent Europe. But it soon moved towards solving more cycle problems, including in agriculture and food security.

When it comes to sustainability, people, but governments as well, mainly look at energy, cars, buildings, according to Gerda Verburg, United Nations Secretary-General assistant and coordinator of the UN Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) movement.

"They should pay more attention to agriculture, forestry and fisheries because, in the end, these sectors should keep our planet in healthy conditions to feed the world population," she said.

For Verburg, although it is still work in progress, the bioeconomy concept is an opportunity to "close the circle," especially in the breeding sector where it is possible to fix the problem of greenhouse emissions that animals produce.

Private sector involvement
Verburg also said big tech companies and the private sector should be involved in all the possible solutions to assist farmers.

Bioeconomy provides a source of additional income from farmers, foresters and fishermen, but it could also be a profitable business for private companies that bring to market services and products.

"I don't care if companies are making profits out of the transfer from a non-sustainable production toward sustainable production," she said, adding that she is much more concerned about companies that continue to push farmers to buy their products.

According to her, it is the fact that some companies are maximising their profits at the cost of people and environment that should raise concerns, rather than the fact that they make use of an innovative approach to support farmers and at the same time develop biodiversity.

"Good for them if they make money out of this, as long as they are part of the solution. And let's be frank, a company who doesn't make profits, also won't make a leap into future," she said.

The private sector is the main actor in all the new agricultural trends, according to Davit Kirvalidze, Georgia's candidate for FAO Directory general and former agriculture minister of his country. Asked by EURACTIV particularly about the bioeconomy, he replied, "Empower the private sector, and the private sector will know how to do it".

He added that the private sector had always led the progress while the role of governments is to provide companies with the right regulatory and institutional environment.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a Danish economist and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, stressed that we "do need to understand much better how to approach all the biological resources used in the bioeconomy framework".

According to him, many risks could come from the use of natural resources for purposes other than food, as has happened with biofuels, which he considers as the wrong way to cope with the energy security problem.

He added that some co-products like animal manure should be kept in the food circle to produce organic fertilisers, rather than be used for energy production.

Animal manure could be treated, indeed, through a process of anaerobic digestion to produce biogas, a renewable fuel which contains methane and that can have an impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"We have to be very careful that we know what we're doing so that we don't simply subtract natural resources from food production with some very negative consequences," Pinstrup-Andersen concluded.

The European Commission put the use of biofertilisers as one of the areas to develop in the context of the new bioeconomy strategy, unveiled last October.

"I would really like to see manure used as a feedstock for fertilisers. It is part of the circular economy philosophy," Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen said during the presentation of the strategy.


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Commission calls for bioeconomy strategies to be expanded and implemented (13/05/2019)
Under the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the European Commission will not approve the national strategic plan of a member state that does not include the promotion of the bioeconomy in agriculture, the EU's Farming Commissioner Phil Hogan has said.
"The bioeconomy is a very important subject that requires EU-wide action and it is now stating explicitly as part of the 9 EU objectives" of the reformed CAP, Hogan said.

Through national strategic plans laid down in the proposed CAP, all member states will outline how they want to meet these 9 EU-wide objectives, including the promotion of the bioeconomy, using the CAP tools.

Hogan pointed out that EU countries are required to submit proposals on how to expand the bioeconomy's role in agriculture and in all bio-based industries.

According to the EU's agriculture boss, EU member states will have more freedom under the Commission's proposal for the future CAP. This freedom will allow them to focus on their bioeconomies and help them meet the higher ambitions of the future policy on the environment and climate change.

"A sustainable bioeconomy is also hugely important for reducing emissions in the EU," said Hogan, mentioning bioenergy's contribution to help meeting renewable energy targets for 2020 and 2030, but also to substitute fossil-based materials in sectors like construction, plastics or textiles.

EU and national strategies

The Commission's bioeconomy strategy was initially conceived seven years ago as a way to encourage Europe to be less dependent on petroleum. The updated strategy presented last October expanded its action plan to develop a sustainable and circular bioeconomy from mainly biofuels to any kind of bio-based industry.

Now the strategy looks more at the circular economy as well as sustainability. The three goals of the strategy, as stated by the Commission, are to strengthen and scale up the bio-based sectors, unlock investments and markets, deploy local bioeconomies rapidly across the whole of Europe and understand the ecological boundaries of the bioeconomy.

The Commission's action plan also promotes the uptake of national bioeconomy strategies, setting up tools such as the European bioeconomy policy support facility, as well as a European Bioeconomy forum, in order to help EU countries develop their own strategy.

"We need a bioeconomy strategy that can be implemented in every member state," Hogan said.

Currently, only Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Finland and Malta have dedicated national bioeconomy strategies at the national level. Six EU countries have strategies under development while the remaining 13 have other policy initiatives or related strategies at a national level.

Additional income for farmers

"For the past 4 years at the EU level, I have put the bioeconomy centrally in the agricultural policy discussions of the future," said Hogan.

According to Hogan, the European Parliament agrees that the bioeconomy can be a win-win for farmers and cooperatives when it comes to creating jobs in rural areas and providing a new source of income for farmers.

However, the three reports that together form the entire CAP structure were approved only by the agriculture committee of the European Parliament, without reaching the plenary stage.

It means that it will be up to the Conference of Presidents of the next Parliament, after the EU elections in May, to decide whether to forward the draft report directly to the plenary or ask the next agriculture committee to start from scratch instead.

"We have tried our best to get member states and farmers focused on this for the future," Hogan said. "And now, for the first time, I think we are succeeding."

Hogan hopes member states will make their own initiatives and that the discussions with the Romanian presidency will be successful and help farmers and producers see the potential of the bioeconomy.


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Biocarbon fibres made of lignin (30/04/2019)
Researchers from the German Institutes of Textile and Fibre Research in Denkendorf (DITF) are working on the development of cost-effective carbon fibre made of lignin, a by-product of papermaking.
Carbon fibre is increasingly found in airplanes, cars and wind turbines. Carbon fibre is still made from oil and relatively expensive. However, this is soon to change. Researchers from the German Institutes of Textile and Fibre Research in Denkendorf (DITF) are working on the development of cost-effective carbon fibre made of lignin, a by-product of papermaking.

Carbon fibre has an atomic structure that is similar to that of graphite, consisting of sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a regular pattern. Carbon fibre can be used to reinforce plastics, metals and ceramics. "Carbon fibre composites are the stiffest material known to man, but low in density," says Dr. Erik Frank, who heads up the Carbon Fibre and New Materials department at DITF. Lightweight components that need to tolerate heavy loads or withstand high temperatures usually contain carbon fibre.

Such components include heat shields in spacecraft and aircraft fuselages, the body and brake discs of Formula 1 racing cars, mountain bike frames, skis and other sports equipment. However, carbon fibre is ten times more expensive than conventional reinforcing materials such as glass fibre or steel. It costs at least 15 euros per kilo. Carbon fibre is therefore usually only used in high-end products.

The Carbon Composites Association estimates that global demand for carbon fibre will rise from 70.5 tonnes in 2017 to around 120.5 tonnes by 2022. As a lightweight construction material, it is becoming increasingly attractive for electric cars, enabling them to cover greater distances. Carbon fibre might also play a key role in the construction of ever-larger wind turbine rotor blades. In the construction industry, it could potentially be used as a substitute for steel concrete reinforcements that are susceptible to corrosion.

Lignin - a cheap and renewable resource
Frank expects the price of carbon fibre to halve within a few years. The Denkendorf researchers are investigating lignin as well as other materials for their suitability as resource-efficient renewable carbon fibre precursors. Together with eleven partners, the DIFT researchers hope to bring biocarbon fibres to market as part of the EU project LIBRE.

Lignin is a polymer that ensures the lignification of grasses, shrubs and trees. It fills the spaces between the cellulose fibres in the cell walls of plants, making them rigid. The presence of lignin keeps even 100-metre-tall redwood trees sturdy and upright. Every year, millions of tons of lignin accumulate as residual material in paper mills. Current practice is to burn it, but the project partners are now working on transforming the beige-brown powder into a material that can be spun into threads, and then converted in a further process into anthracite-coloured carbon fibres.

At present, the precursor fibres are made of polyacrylonitrile and are produced using a delicate and tedious web spinning process. "This accounts for half the cost of carbon fibre production," explains Frank. In addition, both acrylonitrile - the basic material - and the solvents used are toxic. Exhaust gases produced during the thermal treatment process must therefore be laboriously cleaned. Pitch is sometimes - although rarely - used as the basis for producing particularly stiff and tensile carbon fibre. However, this type of treatment is even more expensive than the one described above.

"In our case, we prepare the precursor fibres using a cheaper melt-spinning process that does not require the use of solvents," explains Frank. Lignin has a high melting point, so the researchers initially need to make it meltable. Frank's team either modify lignin chemically or mix it with meltable additives.

Filaments thinner than human hair
The pelleted lignin mixture can then be melted in the melt-spinning plant in the Denkendorf factory at temperatures of up to 250 °C. A screw drives forward the soft mass in the extruder - like a meat grinder - and pushes it through several hundred nozzle holes. The fibres, which are ten times thinner than human hair, harden in the air and are wound around reelss. The fibres can be several kilometres long.

The fibres then need to be made unmeltable again. They are passed through a convection oven, in which increasingly hotter air causes the lignin molecules to crosslink. A new particularly energy-efficient oven, which the Denkendorf researchers have developed in cooperation with Blaubeuren-based centrotherm international AG, is expected to further reduce production costs. "The oven uses a partial vacuum, which makes the carbon fibres more homogeneous and gives them better mechanical properties," says Frank. Moreover, it is expected that the time required for the crosslinking reaction could be reduced from the current time of over an hour to 30 minutes.

In the final step, i.e. carbonisation, almost all chemical elements except carbon are separated from the fibre. This is done in a high-temperature oven at over 1,000 °C under a nitrogen atmosphere. The lignin-based carbon fibre from Denkendorf now has a tensile strength of 1.8 gigapascals and a stiffness of up to 200 gigapascals. "Thus, the tensile strength and stiffness values are higher than those of the much heavier high-alloy steel," says the chemist.

Status quo: low carbon yield and brittle fibres
As early as the 1960s/70s, researchers began to produce lignin-based carbon fibre. Lignin has the advantage that it consists of 60 percent carbon atoms and has the aromatic prestructure of the subsequent carbon fibre. However, carbon yield and quality have been low. With the now patented process, Frank's team can recover half the amount of carbon originally present in the lignin. Anything below this value would be uneconomical. The carbon yield is therefore similar to polyacrylonitrile-based carbon fibre and higher than that using cellulose, another biobased raw material alternative.

The biggest problem so far has been that the long polymer chains of lignin are broken down into fragments during the cellulose pulping process in the paper industry. The precursor fibre becomes brittle and fragile, and is therefore difficult to process. To avoid this and stabilise the precursor fibre, Frank's team mixes the lignin mixture with high molecular weight cellulose before feeding it into the melting process. In the long term, however, Frank wants to use only pure lignin because lignin and cellulose interfere with one another. "We take small molecule fragments of lignin and connect them into a long chain of molecules via a chemical component," explains the chemist. As a result, carbon fibre precursors can be produced exclusively from cheap lignin.


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French cosmetic specialist, Alkos unveils range of eyeliner pencils made from recycled paper fibres. (16/04/2019)
French cosmetics manufacturer, Alkos has launched eyeliner cellulose pencils made from recycled paper fibres. According to the company, these make-up pencils use up to 95% of bio-based materials and carve as easily as wood or plastic while being compostable and recyclable.
Currently, a majority of brands use wood or plastic to make their eyeliner pencils.

In a statement, Alkos said that its new product was "an ecological alternative not only to plastic" but "also to wood - a natural resource to protect".

Some environmental campaigners will question whether this initiative from Alkos is greenwash because global brands have been using wood pencils for decades.

However, Alkos' marketing manager Laura Mariani said: "This is a truly innovative solution for sustainable and environmentally-friendly recycling."

According to the Independent newspaper, last year, Zero Waste Week, an annual awareness campaign, reported that more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, most of which are not recyclable.

Larissa Copello, consumption and production campaigner at environmental campaign group, Zero Waste Europe has said that "whatever materials are used, it is key that they do not contain toxic chemicals".

In relation to concerns over compostability/biodegradability, Copello said that it was "important that the right infrastructures are in place to process the material, otherwise it will just be treated as residual waste".

Alkos is not the only cosmetics brand optimising its resources. French cosmetics provider L'Oreal is also pressing ahead with its sustainability programme.

In a statement on its website, L'Oreal said that it had introduced green initiatives to reduce the weight of bottles and caps, which have led to a saving in source materials of 5,000 tonnes between 2008 and 2017.


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Paper, the forgotten forest destroyer (14/02/2019)
As the world awakes to the threat posed by palm oil and soy to our forests, it's in danger of overlooking how paper and packaging drives industrial logging, mis-shapes millions of hectares of forest landscapes and creates monoculture plantations.
Awareness of the destruction wrought by deforestation for agricultural commodities such as beef and soy has - thankfully - grown in recent years among policymakers and the public. Responding to mounting pressure, the European Union (EU) has finally promised to put the issue centre-stage, with its proposed action plan on deforestation.

Less well known are the dangers of forest degradation and loss. This is where forest landscapes are changed, even if not deforested entirely.

Global Forest Watch have made the scale and impacts of this loss strikingly tangible, revealing almost 30 million hectares of forests were lost in 2017 (an area about the size of Italy), with a type of destruction that is on the rise.

Earlier analysis indicates that while about 27% of this forest loss is permanent deforestation, most of it is a different kind of forest loss, like shifting cultivation for rural livelihoods that allows the trees to grow back later, or wildfire.

n about a quarter of the cases, loss is caused by logging by mostly northern forest industries which are often turning natural forests into faster growing plantations, clear cutting northern boreal forests, or just turning diverse ecosystems into more manageable rows of trees.

EU studies into the drivers of deforestation claim that the impacts of forest industries, such as paper, are too small to bother with. But these statistics show that forest industries affect an area similar to that of deforestation, with significant impacts on forests' biodiversity, resilience and carbon storage capacity.

It's time the EU took a closer look at the industries driving this.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), 35-40 per cent of the trees cut for industrial purposes will be turned into paper products. While much of this wood comes from above mentioned "forestry practices", there's clear evidence, including from Indonesia, that some of this wood also comes from deforestation.

The paper and pulp industry is not too choosy about the kind of wood fibre they need - it has to be plentiful, cheap and preferably fast-growing. Vast, monotonous plantations of eucalyptus, acacia and other rapidly-growing species are therefore the side-products of our paper consumption (this kind of wood is not of much interest to the sawnwood or veneer industry).

Paper and pulp industry needs have also been central to the development of "sustainable forest management" definitions which emphasise efficient growth and large volumes of wood, rather than diverse forest ecosystems or wood fibre quality. Thinning and clear-cutting suits the industry much better than the selective logging advocated by many European conservation groups.

As the coordinator of Environmental Paper Network International, people often ask me whether paper is worth worrying about as we move towards paper-free books, bills and news.

But the truth is that paper consumption is shifting, not reducing. Per capita paper consumption is slightly declining in the highest using areas such as the USA and Europe, but this decline has been more than compensated by the increase in paper consumption in Asia.

And while newsprint and printing paper consumption is indeed on the decline, this is more than compensated by the growth in wrapping and packaging paper. A striking 55% of global paper consumption is now made of wrapping and packaging, meaning global paper consumption is also on the rise - from 392 million tonnes in 2010 to 410 million tonnes in 2017.

This is bad news for the forests which are facing increasing pressures, and terrible news for the climate. Paper products have a short lifespan - on average half of the products (and the carbon they stored) are gone in just two years - and the other half doesn't last much longer. To meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals, we need to immediately move from using trees to produce packaging, to protecting and restoring them, cutting them only for long life products.

If we are serious about restoring our forest landscapes - whether for the sake of climate emissions, wildlife or livelihoods - we need go further than just trying to halt deforestation. To restore existing forests degraded by logging as well as degraded lands, we need less plantations and more complex forests that accumulate carbon in old trees and dense vegetation.

And for such a shift to be possible, we need to use less valuable wood fibres for industrial purposes and particularly for throwaway items like tissues, print papers and packaging, and more for products that store the carbon for longer periods.

The challenge to restore the world's forests should start with our paper consumption choices.


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From waste to construction (12/02/2019)
Researchers have examined which agroforestry residues are available for the development of bio-based materials.
Waste and other residues from agriculture and forestry are increasingly seen as a useful source for the production of clean sustainable and affordable high-value fuels or chemicals. To realise the full potential of cellulose-based non-edible biomass and agricultural waste as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels it's crucial to assess their prevalence. Supported by the EU-funded REHAP project researchers have addressed the issue of how to forecast the availability of such feedstock. Their findings were published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

The questions raised by the paper are: "What feedstock shows the highest potential? Where is the feedstock spatially allocated? How will the supply develop in future?" The same journal article states: "The aim of this research was to develop a methodology for spatially explicit prediction of the theoretical, technical and bioeconomic potential of agricultural residues. The forecasting horizon is medium term and covers the period from 2017 to 2030."

The research focused on wheat straw, corn stover (stalks, leaves and cobs), barley straw and rapeseed straw. These represent 80 % "of cereals and oil crops harvesting residues in the European Union," according to the paper. It concluded: "The results indicate the largest increase of all investigated crops was for corn stover at up to 20 per cent between 2017 and 2030. Barley straw potentials are expected to stay rather constant within the coming decade. Rapeseed is the only crop likely to face a decreasing production in many regions in the coming years."

Creating green buildings from waste

The REHAP (Systemic approach to Reduce Energy demand and CO2 emissions of processes that transform agroforestry waste into High Added value Products.) project was launched to transform agricultural and forestry waste into bio-based materials. A newsletter on the project website summarises its objective: "The broader aim of the Rehap project is to create new materials for the construction sector that are derived from agricultural and forestry waste."

REHAP partners believe the forecast approach outlined in the 'Journal of Cleaner Production' article will ensure that the biomass used in Europe is sourced sustainably and will help the advancement of a circular economy without damaging other sectors.

"The publication of this paper will also provide other researchers access to the new and improved forecast, facilitating a significant step towards a greener and more resourceful use of natural resources in Europe, whilst promoting a more competitive bioeconomy," the same newsletter notes.

As explained in a factsheet on the project website agroforestry residues are already used in several areas including animal feed and bedding new farming technologies and horticulture. It notes that the project "is taking underutilised waste from agriculture and forestry and extracting lignin cellulose tannin and hemicellulose. It is then using these compounds to create biopolymers which can then be used to make high value-added construction materials which are normally derived from fossil fuels." It adds: "These compounds have the potential to replace a substantial share of the 50 Million tonnes (Mt) of crude oil currently used in the EU chemical industry."

For more information, please visit the REHAP project website


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