The squabble over waste-based biofuels contains a lesson for the Circular Economy

We have to decarbonise all forms of transport to reach net zero, but what happens when there aren’t enough low carbon fuels to go round? The EU’s upcoming ReFuelEU proposal to bring in a blending mandate for aviation biofuel is setting up an unfortunate competition between road and air transport for waste oils, the preferred raw materials in Europe for both biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). EWABA, the trade association for waste-based biodiesel producers, is fighting the proposed mandate on the grounds that ‘diverting waste feedstocks to aviation will result in a significant increase of GHG emissions in the EU’. But, equally importantly, a decision to implement the mandate may have implications for the circular economy as a whole.

The ReFuelEU proposal, aimed at cutting emissions in the aviation sector, will apply a staggered blending mandate for green jet fuel, with the percentage scaling up in five-year intervals, according to a recent report. EWABA has emphasised that most waste-based biodiesel technology is simpler and more efficient than SAF production, which requires complex, energy intensive technology. So waste biodiesel saves more carbon emissions than aviation fuel made from the same feedstock. 

But the focus should not solely be on immediate greenhouse gas savings. There needs to be some recognition for those who put in the investment to collect the waste in the first place. The biodiesel industry has set up local networks of companies collecting used cooking oil from factories, restaurants and neighbourhoods. Although the collectors will remain in business if their product is used for aviation fuel, the biodiesel companies that helped to set them up may not. Their problems will not go unnoticed in other sectors. 

These networks of waste collectors are models for the structures that will be needed to recycle ever larger quantities of used packaging and dismantle end-of-life appliances so their components can be reclaimed. Different sizes and types of companies are needed to transport and process a complex and often dirty mix of waste materials. Private sector investment will be required to get to scale. EU action to change the goal posts over waste oils could deter investment in other waste collection activities.  

Of course, renewable electricity is the ultimate low carbon transport fuel. But heavy road transport and long haul flights are both hard to electrify and will need liquid fuels for a long time.  So the argument is more about how to manage the transition to electrification. Regulators and governments have to introduce mandates, subsidies and taxes to bring about the circular and net zero economies. It is difficult to anticipate the unintended consequences of decisions on what to mandate or who to tax. But biodiesel producers have worked hard to build waste collection networks. It would set a damaging precedent for the circular economy if a new mandate for aviation biofuel both squandered greenhouse gas savings and crushed businesses.

Published: 25 March 21

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