Supply and demand – pathways towards optimised biomass use

Editorial by Michael Sailer, CEO, Oeko-Institut

Biomass comes in many different forms and has a wide variety of applications. Examples are the use of timber in the furniture industry, residues in energy production, and fibre in the garment industry. In other words, it is an extremely versatile raw material. However, the biogeographical spaces that provide these inputs are used with varying degrees of intensity, sometimes with adverse consequences. As you may be aware, I live in the Darmstadt area and am very familiar with the Pfungstädter Moor, a great example of the successful conservation of precious peatlands. Peat was still being extracted for fuel here as late as the 1950s, and reeds were still being cut for use as a roofing material. Today, much of the peatland has been restored to a natural state and provides a habitat for numerous native species of bird and plant.

This is just one small example, but it shows that where the sensitive issue of biomass is concerned, it’s all about the bigger picture: a great many factors need to be considered. Often, food production interests are diametrically opposed to those of climate protection and low-carbon energy generation. Some of the problems and conflicts that can arise in the production and use of biomass are addressed in this issue of eco@work. It is five years since we last informed you about our work in this field. Since then, there have been many changes, not only in the Institute itself but also in the wider world. The 2010 issue of eco@work focused on our activities in the field of sustainable biomass certification. This time, we are looking at supply and demand. We explore ways of optimising land use in the context of environmental and climate protection, but we also think about the issue of food security. And we consider how to make use of biomass while minimising its negative impacts. For me, innovation is the most exciting aspect of this topic: I am inspired by ideas such as the manufacture of biodegradable plastic from crab shells, recently unveiled by a Harvard research group. The chitin in the crab shells can be used to produce a robust plastic-like material which biodegrades naturally in a matter of weeks. It’s a brilliant idea – and although it won’t change the world, it does pave the way for innovations that we will need in our transition towards a sustainable raw materials supply.

I hope you enjoy reading this issue of eco@work.

Michael Sailer
CEO, Oeko-Institut