Independent environment reporter, founder of ThisWeekInEarth.com
Industrial ecology is the idea that technical systems exist within the biosphere and not outside of it. That means we, and our activities, are part of nature. We can observe that natural systems reuse materials and have a closed loop nutrient cycle. By extending that principle to industrial activities, we can reduce their environmental impact – and often save money.
In practical terms, that means, for example, that one company’s waste can be another’s feedstock, reducing the need to extract virgin resources. Perhaps more important to businesses, it turns a liability – waste and how to dispose of it without incurring disposal costs or fines – into an asset – something another company needs and is willing to pay for.
Blue Marble Biomaterials, which I wrote about last August in Forbes, announced late last week that it has signed a memorandum of understandingwith Anheuser-Busch Companies, to begin development of a bio-refinery pilot at a North American Anheuser-Busch facility.
Blue Marble, founded in 2005, was formerly an algae-for-fuel company. It has since shifted focus, making its byproduct, biochemicals, its products. It is targeting the high-value flavoring and fragrance industries, which are ingredients in products such as bubblegum and shampoo. It may also sell solvents, which can be used in paint, nail polish, and nail polish remover.
Blue Marble is currently using mostly coffee grounds in its fermentation reactors, but it’s looking to other biomass feedstocks, including brewers’ waste and sawdust from lumber mills. That’s where Anheuser-Busch comes in.
The pilot project will convert spent grains and biogas from the brewing process into “green” chemicals that can be used in other applications, such as food, cosmetics, and personal care products. These renewable chemicals are drop-in replacements for petroleum-derived chemicals, which are common ingredients in everyday goods.
Blue Marble President James Stephens said, “Our team began testing small batches of Anheuser-Busch grain in early 2011 at our pilot facility and continued to do so as we scaled into our small commercial facility in Missoula, Mont.” He said Blue Marble is also intrigued by Anheuser-Busch’s scalability potential.
Industrial ecosystem strategies are an important component of making human activities sustainable: Earth’s resources are obviously finite, so an economic system based on perpetual growth driven by those resources is ultimately doomed.
One of the earliest examples of industrial ecology is in Kalundborg, Denmark. Several industrial facilities are linked, sharing their byproducts and waste heat. They include a power plant, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical plant, a plasterboard factory, an enzyme manufacturer, a waste company, and the city itself.
Gene Bocis, director of utilities support at Anheuser-Busch, said the beer company has long given its waste brewers’ grain to farmers to feed livestock. But “we are excited about the opportunity to have another complementary use for our grain byproducts that is also environmentally responsible and beneficial to other industries,” he said.
Anheuser-Busch now requires from Blue Marble financial proposals, including projected revenue and an analysis of possible funding scenarios.
Industrial ecology is a concept that is picking up momentum. Its tenants are laid out in journals such as the Journal of Industrial Ecology, International Society for Industrial Ecology, and Progress in Industrial Ecology.
China is also promoting the idea of the Circular Economy, which hews to the ideology of creating a circular flow of materials and cascading energy flows.