Our lives may, quite literally, be changed. Environmental biotechnology deals with far less apparently dramatic topics and, though their importance, albeit different, may be every bit as great, their direct relevance is far less readily appreciated by the bulk of the population.
Cleaning up contamination and dealing rationally with wastes is, of course, in everybody’s best interests, but for most people, this is simply addressing a problem which they would rather have not existed in the first place.
Even for industry, though the benefits may be noticeable on the balance sheet, the likes of effluent treatment or pollution control are more of an inevitable obligation than a primary goal in themselves.
In general, such activities are typically funded on a distinctly limited budget and have traditionally been viewed as a necessary inconvenience. This is in no way intended to be disparaging to industry; it simply represents commercial reality. In many respects, there is a logical fit between this thinking and the aims of environmental biotechnology.
For the entire media circus surrounding the grand questions of our age, it is easy to forget that not all forms of biotechnology involve xenotransplantation, genetic modification, the use of stem cells or cloning. Some of the potentially most beneficial uses of biological engineering, and which may touch the lives of the majority of people, however indirectly, involve much simpler approaches. Less radical and showy, certainly, but powerful tools, just the same.
Environmental biotechnology is fundamentally rooted in waste, in its various guises, typically being concerned with the remediation of contamination caused by previous use, the impact reduction of current activity or the control of pollution.
Thus, the principal aims of this field are the manufacture of products in environmentally harmonious ways, which allow for the minimisation of harmful solids, liquids or gaseous outputs or the clean-up of the residual effects of earlier human occupation. The means by which this may be achieved are essentially two-fold.
Environmental biotechnologists may enhance or optimise conditions for existing biological systems to make their activities happen faster or more efficiently, or they resort to some form of alteration to bring about the desired outcome.
The variety of organisms which may play a part in environmental applications of biotechnology is huge, ranging from microbes through to trees and all are utilised on one of the same three fundamental bases – accept, acclimatise or alter. For the vast majority of cases, it is the former approach, accepting and making use of existing species in their natural, unmodified form, which predominates.
Accordingly, the range of businesses to which environmental biotechnology has potential relevance is almost limitless. One area where this is most apparent is with regard to waste. All commercial operations generate waste of one form or another and for many, a proportion of what is produced is biodegradable.
With disposal costs rising steadily across the world, dealing with refuse constitutes an increasingly high contribution to overheads. Thus, there is a clear incentive for all businesses to identify potentially cost-cutting approaches to waste and employ them where possible.
Changes in legislation throughout Europe, the US and elsewhere, have combined to drive these issues higher up the political agenda and biological methods of waste treatment have gained far greater acceptance as a result, for those industries with particularly high biowaste production, the various available treatment biotechnologies can offer considerable savings.
Manufacturing industries can benefit from the applications of whole organisms or isolated biocomponents. Compared with conventional chemical processes, microbes and enzymes typically function at lower temperatures and pressures.
The lower energy demands this makes leads to reduced costs, but also has clear benefits in terms of both the environment and workplace safety. Additionally, biotechnology can be of further commercial significance by converting low-cost organic feed-stocks into high value products or, since enzymatic reactions are more highly specific than their chemical counterparts, by deriving final substances of high relative purity. Almost inevitably, manufacturing companies produce wastewaters or effluents, many of which contain biodegradable contaminants, in varying degrees.
Though traditional permitted discharges to sewer or watercourses may be adequate for some, other industries, particularly those with recalcitrant or highly concentrated effluents, have found significant benefits to be gained from using biological treatment methods themselves on site.
Though careful monitoring and process control are essential, biotechnology stands as a particularly cost- effective means of reducing the pollution potential of wastewater, leading to enhanced public relations, compliance with environmental legislation and quantifiable cost-savings to the business.
Those involved in processing organic matter, for example, or with drying, printing, painting or coating processes, may give rise to the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or odours, both of which represent environmental nuisances, though the former is more damaging than the latter. For many, it is not possible to avoid producing these emissions altogether, which leaves treating them to remove the offending contaminants the only practical solution.
Especially for relatively low concentrations of readily water-soluble VOCs or odorous chemicals, biological technologies can offer an economic and effective alternative to conventional methods. The use of biological cleaning agents is another area of potential benefit, especially where there is a need to remove oils and fats from process equipment, work surfaces or drains.
Aside from typically reducing energy costs, this may also obviate the need for toxic or dangerous chemical agents. The pharmaceutical and brewing industries, for example, both have a long history of employing enzyme- based cleaners to remove organic residues from their process equipment.
In addition, the development of effective biosensors, powerful tools which rely on biochemical reactions to detect specific substances, has brought benefits to a wide range of sectors, including the manufacturing, engineering, chemical, water, food and beverage industries.
With their ability to detect even small amounts of their particular target chemicals, quickly, easily and accurately, they have been enthusiastically adopted for a variety of process monitoring applications, particularly in respect of pollution assessment and control.
Contaminated land is a growing concern for the construction industry, as it seeks to balance the need for more houses and offices with wider social and environmental goals. The reuse of former industrial sites, many of which occupy prime locations, may typically have associated planning conditions attached which demand that the land be cleaned up as part of the development process.
With urban regeneration and the reclamation of ‘brown-field’ sites increasingly favoured in many countries over the use of virgin land, remediation has come to play a significant role and the industry has an ongoing interest in identifying cost-effective methods of achieving it.
Historically, much of this has involved simply digging tip the contaminated soil and removing it to landfill elsewhere. Bioremediation technologies provide a competitive and sustainable alternative and in many cases, the lower disturbance allows the overall scheme to make faster progress.
The UK’s Department of Trade and Industry estimated that 15-20% of the global environmental market in 2001 was biotech-based, which amounted to about 250- 300 billion US dollars and the industry is projected to grow by as much as ten-fold over the following five years.
This expected growth is due to greater acceptance of biotechnology for clean manufacturing applications and energy production, together with increased landfill charges and legislative changes in waste management which also alter the UK financial base favourably with respect to bioremediation.
Biotechnology-based methods are seen as essential to help meet European Union (EU) targets for biowaste diversion from land-fill and reductions in pollutants. Across the world the existing regulations on environmental pollution are predicted to be more rigorously enforced, with more stringent compliance standards implemented.
All of this is expected to stimulate the sales of biotechnology-based environmental processing methods significantly and, in particular, the global market share is projected to grow faster than the general biotech sector trend, in part due to the anticipated large-scale EU aid for environmental clean-up in the new accession countries of Eastern Europe. Other sources paint a broadly similar picture.
The Bio-Industry Association (BIA) survey, Industrial Markets for UK Biotechnology – Trends and Issues, published in 1999 does not quote any monetary sector values per year, but gives the size of the UK sector as employing 40 000 people in 1998 with an average yearly growth over 1995-98 of 20%. Environmental biotech is reported as representing around 10% of this sector.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the global market for environmental biotechnology products and services alone will rise to some US$75 billion by the year 2000, accounting for some 15 to 25% of the overall environmental technology market, which has a growth rate estimated at 5.5% per annum.
The UK potential market for environmental biotechnology products and services is estimated at between 1.65 and 2.75 billion US dollars and the growth of the sector stands at 25% per annum.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that the industrial use of biotechnology commonly leads to increasingly environmentally harmonious processes and additionally results in lowered operating and/or capital costs.
For years, industry has appeared locked into a seemingly unbreakable cycle of growth achieved at the cost of environmental damage. The OECD investigation provides what is probably the first hard evidence to support the reality of biotechnology’s long-heralded promise of alternative production methods, which are ecologically sound and economically efficient.
A variety of industrial sectors including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, textiles, food and energy were examined, with a particular emphasis on biomass renewable resources, enzymes and bio-catalysis. While such approaches may have to be used in tandem with other processes for maximum effectiveness, it seems that their use invariably leads to reduction in operating or capital costs, or both.
Moreover, the research also concludes that it is clearly in the interests of governments of the developed and developing world’s alike to promote the use of biotechnology for the substantial reductions in resource and energy consumption, emissions, pollution and waste production it offers.
The potential contribution to be made by the appropriate use of biotechnology to environmental and economic sustainability would seem to be clear. The upshot of this is that few biotech companies in the environmental sector perceive problems for their own business development models, principally as a result of the wide range of businesses for which their services are applicable, the relatively low market penetration to date and the large potential for growth. Competition within the sector is not seen as a major issue either, since the field is still largely open and unsaturated.
Moreover, there has been a discernible tendency in recent years towards niche specificity, with companies operating in more specialised subarenas within the environmental biotechnology umbrella.
Given the number and diversity of such possible slots, coupled with the fact that new opportunities, and the technologies to capitalise on them, are developing apace, this trend seems likely to continue. It is not without some irony that companies basing their commercial activities on biological organisms should themselves come to behave in such a Darwinian fashion. However, the picture is not entirely rosy.
Typically the sector comprises a number of relatively small, specialist companies and the market is, as a consequence, inevitably fragmented. Often the complexities of individual projects make the application of ‘standard’ off-the shelf approaches very difficult, the upshot being that much of what is done must be significantly customised.
While this, of course, is a strength and of great potential environmental benefit, it also has hard commercial implications which must be taken into account. A sizeable proportion of companies active in this sphere, have no products or services which might reasonably be termed suitable for generalised use, though they may have enough expertise, experience or sufficiently perfected techniques to deal with a large number of possible scenarios.
The fact remains that one of the major barriers to the wider uptake of biological approaches is the high perceived cost of these applications. Part of the reason for this lies in historical experience.
For many years, the solutions to all environmental problems were seen as expensive and for many, particularly those unfamiliar with the multiplicity of varied technologies available, this has remained the prevalent view. Generally, there is often a lack of financial resource allocation available for this kind of work and biotech providers have sometimes come under pressure to reduce the prices for their services as a result.
Greater awareness of the benefits of biotechnology, both as a means to boost existing markets and for the opening up of new ones, is an important area to be addressed. Many providers, particularly in the UK, have cited a lack of marketing expertise as one of the principal barriers to their exploitation of novel opportunities.
In addition, a lack of technical understanding of biotech approaches amongst target industries and, in some cases, downright scepticism regarding their efficacy, can also prove problematic. Good education, in the widest sense, of customers and potential users of biological solutions will be one major factor in any future upswing in the acceptance and utilisation of these technologies.