Our economy uses large quantities of materials from biomass, which is mainly vegetable based but also animal based. Wood, cotton, oils, paper, biofuels, pellets for heating, leather, wool are some examples. These materials are considered as renewable, but until when? In fact, their demand is increasingly on the rise which creates strong pressure on nature. It is therefore necessary to make this biomass sustainable so that future generations can also benefit from it.
What is biomass?
Biomass can be defined as any material from a living source, whether plant or animal. Biomaterials (or materials derived from biomass) have very different forms and functions. They can be classified into three broad categories:
• food: human (oil, starches, animal husbandry, etc.) and animal (fodder);
• energy: firewood, pellets, biofuels (bioethanol and biodiesel), etc.;
• materials: wood (construction, furnishing), fibres (clothes, textiles, paper, cardboard, filters, cords, insulation, etc.), oils (such as raw material for lubricants, surfactants, paints, etc.), starch (for biodegradable materials, adhesives, etc.), and sugars (for the manufacture of detergents and cosmetics), vegetable dyes, etc.
While biomass has been used for millennia, its use is being diversified and is now extending to applications related to new technologies (biofuels, bioplastics based on starch).
Statistics of recent years show that the amount of materials used in Belgium in all sectors combined is about 17.5 tonnes per year per capita. Biomaterials constitute more than a quarter of these materials.
The charts given below give, for 2009, the estimated quantity of biomass used in Belgium for different uses and indicate from which plant or what animal they are sourced.
Food and feed, in tonnes.
On reading these charts, it appears that the initial industrial and energy uses of biomass in Belgium are intended for:
- material and energy applications (particularly through the use of wood and by-products of grains)
- food applications (mainly cereals and sugar)
- and finally for applications in the chemical industry (particularly for cereals).
Note that imported goods (and therefore most fabrics and clothing sold in our market) are not included in these charts.
This data is taken from the study “Studie ter kwantificering van de biomassastromen, geproduceerd en geïmporteerd in het territorium van het Belgische koninkrijk met het oog op de productie van energie en van industriële producten”, conducted by VITO in 2012.
Biofuels such as bioplastics or plant based surfactants for detergents are applications that rely on the use of biomass and are becoming increasingly successful.
Biomass has become an important item for the future development of the European industry that would represent a turnover of 2,000 billion Euro (in all of Europe and employment for 22 million people), according to European Commission Press Release “Innovation for sustainable growth: a bioeconomy for Europe”.
The use of biomass is therefore an important issue both from an economic and social point of view and involves sectors as diverse as agriculture and fishing, woodworking, construction and waste treatment, pharmacy and energy etc.
However, if no framework is proposed, resources from biomass deemed to be renewable, may no longer be. Gradually, policies related to the use of biomass are trying to address this environmental dimension. This is particularly true of measures for biofuels, legal wood and promotion of certified wood.
Today, there is political awareness of challenges related to biomass. But many challenges remain and must be addressed so that natural resources can be used in a sustainable and renewable way and that we can continue to benefit from the services provided by nature.