The Scotch whisky industry has long boasted how some of its waste product goes to animal feed

The Scotch whisky industry has long boasted how some of its waste product goes to animal feed

Declining raw material consumption in the UK is partially a result of better resource efficiency, while continued efforts to boost efficiency are vital in meeting global challenges. In this month's Sustainability Spotlight, Ben Cooper looks at how moving towards the circular economy is fostering innovation in the Scotch whisky sector.

The suggestion that the declining raw material consumption in the UK identified earlier this year by official UK statistics signifies consumers' arrival at the point of reaching "peak stuff" is an intriguing one from a sustainability standpoint. In environmental terms, declining consumption of raw materials – the ONS figures cover biomass, metal ores, non-metallic minerals and fossil fuels – is good news, but extrapolations have to be cautiously drawn.

The most important caveat is that even if demand is flattening off in developed countries, it will still be increasing in developing countries, fuelled to a significant degree by the rise in consumerism which is so crucial to the long-term growth strategies of multinational companies, including drinks corporations.

Improved resource efficiency has contributed to the fall in the use of natural resources in the UK and, across mature and developing economies alike, continued work towards building the 'circular economy' remains vital.

The degree to which the circular economy is something new is a matter of debate and perhaps a question of semantics. Even before environmental concerns became the defining issues they are today, resource efficiency was always crucial to companies. However, the concept of the circular economy, which defines the move away from a linear (make-use-dispose) economy, is becoming an increasingly critical frame of reference for both companies and governments.

The way in which thinking around the circular economy is fostering the development of new ideas, technologies and practices around resource efficiency can clearly be observed in the Scotch whisky industry. Morag Garden, head of sustainability & innovation at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), stresses that the ethos is nothing new, but some of the ideas and concepts are.

"The Scotch whisky industry has a tradition of managing its resources wisely," Garden tells just-drinks, pointing to "numerous good practices of circularity", such as the longstanding use of production residues for animal feed and reusing casks from other drinks sectors.

The move towards waste-to-energy conversion is an example of how a traditional 'common sense' approach to making the most of resources is evolving in line with today's challenges. "More recently," Garden adds, "our members are using their by-products to produce on-site renewable energy, which we are proud to note assists Scotland's transition towards a bio-based, low carbon circular economy." This innovation also provides distilleries with increased energy security. Indeed, a recent Scottish Government report commended the Scotch whisky sector's efforts, saying it is "leading the way" in the use of biomass.

While the principal technologies used by Scotch distillers to date are anaerobic digestion (AD) and biomass boilers, the continued innovation and development of the waste-to-energy sector can also be seen in Scotland. Celtic Renewables is a company that has been formed to commercialise what it describes as a "next generation biofuel", produced using the acetone–butanol–ethanol (ABE) fermentation process from the by-products of biological industries. The company has launched in Scotland because of the abundance of feedstock for the process that can be sourced from the Scotch sector.

While Scotch – along with distillers in other countries such as the US and France – has a good record in making use of by-products, Celtic Renewables CEO Mark Simmers says his company can take that utilisation of waste to a higher level. In waste hierarchy terms, cattle feed, for example, is a relatively low-value use, Simmers explains. "It's a perishable commodity and frankly it's more of a disposal route at the end of the day for the whisky distillers," he says. "There's currently 3m to 4m tonnes of distillery by-products produced every year and cattle feed will never ever be able to soak up all of that." According to Simmers, almost half of the by-products are sent for disposal to the north of England. "It's an expensive way to dispose of it."

Celtic Renewables is targeting 20% to 30% of the current volume of by-product produced by the Scotch industry, but the company is also looking beyond Scotland and Simmers stresses that the process could be utilised in any drinks sector. "Our technology can apply to any drinks industry and a whole range of agricultural residues and leftovers as well," he says.

As is seen so often in innovation in the sustainability field, the Celtic Renewables concept is a disruptive technology, in this instance potentially replacing one traditional form of waste utilisation with a more efficient one. In addition to making more productive use of the considerable carbohydrate content in distillery waste, the process also yields a high-protein dry pellet animal feed. Simmers says what Scotch distillers were already doing speaks to "a great tradition within Scotch whisky for a high degree of resource efficiency". But, he believes there is "massive room for innovation" to improve and enhance what they are doing.

It is clear that the industry's efforts around waste-to-energy conversion are being welcomed and supported by the Scottish government, which recently commissioned a study entitled 'Circular Economy Evidence Building Programme: Sector Study on Beer, Whisky & Fish', and invited the whisky industry to participate. The involvement in this research underlines the benefits of building a close rapport with policymakers on environmental issues. "We were pleased to be involved in the early stages of this research as previous experience shows that projects which start from a basis of a good understanding of the industry needs and requirements will more likely succeed to full commercialisation," Garden says. "We see this early collaboration with the Scotch whisky industry as a great opportunity to explore new and additional markets for our by-products as well as other industry materials, which will keep us on our journey towards sustainability."

Both Simmers and Garden stress the importance of collaboration in innovation to further the circular economy. "We can only achieve our ambitious environmental goals in partnership with others including our supply chain, Government and wider stakeholders," Garden concludes, "which is why we are very excited to be working with Scottish Government in delivering a circular economy for Scotland."