The Ellen McArthur Foundation launches Urban Biocycles: value from organic waste

Ellen MacArthur with Carlo Messina, CEO of Intesa Sanpaolo in Milan, Italy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation today launched a new scoping paper – Urban Biocycles produced in collaboration with World Economic Forum, in front of delegates from leading international institutions, at the annual Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA2017) in Brussels. The paper provides the Foundation’s first exploration of how applying circular economy principles could capture new value from biological material flows, in an urban context.

Key findings of the new paper are: a significant volume of organic waste flows through the urban environment; the paper highlights the opportunities in capturing the value of this waste in the form of energy, nutrients and materials embedded in these flows; designing a more effective recovery and processing system can turn organic waste into a source of value and contribute to restoring natural capital; if, through using circular economy principles, we recover all relevant nutrients in the human waste stream, it could amount to 2.7 times the volume of the synthetic fertilisers used today.

“Every year – that authors of the paper write – people harvest roughly 13 billion tonnes of biomass globally to use as food, energy and materials. This biomass flows through the ‘biocycle economy’, as it is referred to in this scoping paper. This part of the economy includes industries that deal with biological materials at different stages of the value chain: for example, agriculture, forestry and fishing at the primary stage; food processing, textile manufacturing and biotechnology in the processing stage; and retail and resource management in the consumption stage. Together, they generate a global value of approximately USD 12.5 trillion, equivalent (in 2013) to 17% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

The biocycle economy’s share of the overall economy is much larger in emerging markets, where the majority of growth in per capita consumption is expected. In this context, the volume of biomass flowing through the global economy is set to grow: notably, by 2050, global demand for food is expected to rise by approximately 55%.

While such parameters offer considerable commercial and trade opportunities, they also involve numerous challenges. These include significant structural waste in the biocycle economy (about a third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted), as well as natural capital losses and negative environmental externalities. The volume of greenhouse gas emissions produced by global food waste is ranked third behind China and the US. Land degradation affects roughly one quarter of land globally and costs USD 40 billion per year. Eutrophication, or the accumulation of nutrients caused by surface run-off and the resulting overgrowth of plant life, has created aquatic dead zones all around the world.

At the same time, the economic opportunities are significant. The World Economic Forum estimates that potential global revenues from the biomass value chain – comprising the production of agricultural inputs, biomass trading and biorefinery outputs – could be as high as USD 295 billion by 2020”.

As John Bell, director for BioEconomy, DG Research & Innovation EU Commission, stated, “the bioeconomy is the biological heart of the circular economy”. The paper launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is another important milestone towards the bio-circular economy.


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