The new bioeconomy

15 05 2012

Last week we explored using biomass as fuel, and some of the implications in doing that.  Previously we looked at using biomass in the world of fabrics and furnishings,  which include the new biotech products polylactic acid (PLA) (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery  (click  here and here to see our posts).  The ideas being presented by new bio technologies are not new – in the 19th century Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold – and the idea has always held a fascination for humans.

There is a new report called “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) published by The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies.  This report paints an even more troubling picture than what I’ve been able to uncover to date, and the information contained in this post comes from that report:

“Under the pretext of addressing environmental degredation, climate change and the energy and food crisis, and using the rhetoric of the “new” bioeconomy  (“sustainability”, “green economy”, “clean tech”, “clean development”) industry is talking about  solving these problems by substituting fossil carbon for that of living matter.    The term “bioeconomy” is based on the notion that biological systems and resources can be harnessed to maintain current industrial systems of production, consumption and capital accumulation.” 

Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (i.e. fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) – and therefore a “clean” form of development –  this emerging bioeconomy is in fact, according to ETC,  “a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South” (because 86% of that biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics).

What does a new bioeconomy look like?  According to the ETC:   “as the DNA found in living cells is decoded into genetic information for use in biotechnology applications, genetic sequences  acquire a new value as the building blocks of designed biological production systems. By hijacking the ‘genetic instructions’ of cells … to force them to produce industrial products, industry transforms synthetic organisms into bio-factories that can be deployed elsewhere on the globe – either in private vats or plantations.  Nature is altered to meet business interests.”

They go on to say that as ecosystems collapse and biodiversity declines, new markets in ecosystem “services” will enable the trading of ecological ‘credits.’   The declared aim is to “incentivize conservation” by creating a profit motive in order to justify interventions in large-scale natural systems such as hydrological cycles, the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle.[1] Like the ‘services’ of an industrial production system, these ‘ecosystem services,’ created to privatize natural processes, will become progressively more effective at serving the interests of business.

It seems to be all about profit.

The ETC report states that concerted attempts are already underway by many industrial players to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more.

The visible players involved in commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated in the global economy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Weyerhaeuser.   Enabling this attempt is the adoption of synthetic biology techniques (extreme genetic engineering) by these well-funded companies.

“We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

– J. Craig Venter, founder Synthetic Genomics, Inc.[2]

There is lots more in the ETC report, here’s just a summary of some other issues:

  • The report examines the next generation biofuels, including algal biofuels and synthetic hydrocarbons, and establishes the case for why this generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first.  Even leading companies and scientists involved in synthetic biology agree that some oversight is necessary – currently it’s being mostly ignored and is not on the agenda for the Rio+20 summit to be held in Brazil in June.
  • Today’s synthetic biology is unpredictable, untested and poorly understood.  Could open a Pandora’s box of consequences.  See:  http://www.cbd.int/doc/emerging-issues/foe-synthetic-biology-for-biofuels-2011-013-en.pdf
  • The “green” credentials of current bio-based plastics and chemicals are called into question.  (See our posts on biopolymers – click here and here).
  • How much biomass is enough?  “Attempting to set an ‘acceptable level’ of biomass extraction is as inappropriate as forcing a blood donation from a hemorrhaging patient. Already struggling to maintain life support, the planet simply does not have any biomass to spare. Human beings already capture on-fourth of land based biomass for food, heat and shelter; attempts to define a limit beyond which ecosystems lose resilience and begin to break down reveal that we consumed past such limits 20 years ago.”
  • Biomass is considered a “renewable resource” – and it is true that while plants may be renewable in a short period of time, the soils and ecosystem that they depend on may not be.  Industrial agriculture and forest biomass extraction rob soils of nutrients, organic matter, water and structure, decreasing fertility and leaving ecosystems more vulnerable or even prone to collapse. Associated use of industrial chemicals and poor land management can make things worse. In practice, therefore, biomass is often only truly renewable when extracted in such small amounts that they are not of interest to industry.
  • The claim that biomass technology will be a stepping stone to a new mix of energy sources misses the whole point – that we are facing a crisis of overproduction and consumption.  Reducing our overall energy demands is critical, as it boosting support for decentralized peasant agriculture.

[1] See for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity:

Ecological and Economic Foundations. Edited By Pushpam Kumar. An

output of TEEB: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,

Earthscan Oct. 2010

[2] Michael Graham Richard, “Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2,” Treehugger, 29 February 2008. Available online at: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/02/craig-venter-fuel-co2-tedconference.php

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What to do about salt?

16 02 2011

Last week we talked about the use of salt in textile dyeing.  We always say the textile industry uses a LOT of three resources: water, chemicals and energy.  The use of salt (a chemical – benign, essential for life, but a chemical nevertheless) bumps up the other two considerably.   And though the salt itself is not expensive, using less salt delivers substantial benefits to the mill because the fabric requires less rinsing in hot water (and hence reductions in energy and water) as well as cost savings of up to 10% of the total process costs.[1] So we promised to look at options available to avoid salt.

To recap:

When fabrics made of cotton, linen, hemp or viscose are dyed,  they’re immersed in water which contains dyes which have been dissolved in the water.   These dye chemicals are usually reactive dyes which require  the addition of salt  to “push” the dyes out of solution and into the cloth.  The salt acts like a glue to hold the dye molecules in place.  But the percentage of dye that moves from the dye bath into the fiber, and permanently bonds with the fiber (called the fixation rate) is very low.  For conventional reactive dyes, the fixation rate is often less than 80%, resulting in waste of dyestuff, and also the need to remove that 20% from the fabric.[2] But this is incredibly difficult when the “unreacted” dyes are still “glued” onto the fabric by salt.  So vast amounts of water are required  to simply dilute the salt concentrations to a point where it no longer acts as glue.

There are a few things that mill owners can do:  simple process optimization can easily reduce salt concentrations in dyebaths by 10 to 15%.  Another simple method is to reduce liquor ratios (which is simply the ratio of water to fabric in a dyeing process).  It’s easy to see that using 10 gallons of 100 oz/gal of salt uses less salt than using 5 gallons of 100 oz/gal of salt.

There are also some “low salt” dyes that have appeared on the market.  These dyestuffs  require less “glue” to fix to the fibers.  Ciba Specialty Chemicals, a Swiss manufacturer of textile dyes (now part of BASF) produces a dyestuff which requires less salt.  As the company brochure puts it:  “ Textile companies using the new dyes are able toreduce their costs for salt by up to 2 percent of revenues, a significant drop in an industry withrazor-thin profit margins.”  However,  we’re told they’re not used because of uncompetetitive pricing.  (Remember, it’s all about the cost!).

Another alternative is to recycle the salt.  The effluent can be cleaned and the salt recovered through an energy intensive process to evaporate the water.  But the carbon footprint takes a beating.

We’re back to square one: to use less salt.

And that usually means we have to look to the dyeing machines.  There are low-liquor-ratio (LLR) jet dyeing mcahines that are based on the principle of accelerating water through a nozzle to transport fabrics through the machine.  They are designed to operate efficiently and at high quality with a very low ratio of water to material.  Although these types of machines have been used for over 40 years, recent technological advances have reduced water requirements so that liquor ratios of 8:1 and even 4:1 are possible, with average water consumption of less than 50 liters per kilogram of knit fabric.  Yet there is still salt infused effluent which must be treated.  And these new ultra low liquor ratio machines are very expensive.

What about using no salt at all?

There are two ways to dye fabrics without salt:  “continuous dyeing” and “cold pad batch dyeing”.  Continuous dyeing means that the dye is applied with alkali to activate the dye fixation; the fabric is then steamed for a few minutes to completely fix the dyestuff.  Cold pad batch dyeing applies the dyestuff with alkali and the fabric is simply left at room temperature for 24 hours to fix the dye.

Both of these methods don’t use salt, so the unfixed dye chemicals are easier to remove because there is no salt acting as the “glue” – and therefore less water is used.  And an additional benefit is having a lower salt content in the effluent.

So why don’t companies use this method?  Continuous dyeing requires investment in big, expensive machines that only make environmental sense if they can be filled with large orders – because they use lots of energy even during downtime.

Cold pad batch machines are relatively inexpensive to buy and run, they are highly productive and can be used for a wide range of fabrics.  Yet only 3% of knitted cotton fabric is dyed in Asia using cold pad batch machines.

Why on earth don’t these mills use cold pad batch dyeing?  I would love to hear from any mill owners who might let us know more about the economics of dyeing operations.


[1] “A Practical Guide For Responsible Sourcing”, The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), February 2010.