One of the major weaknesses of the bioeconomy concept is that the finiteness of resources is not sufficiently taken into account.
Photo: FAO/ P. Johnson


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Biomass is a natural resource with a number of competing uses: food, feed, materials and energy. The demands of a growing world population cannot be met without using this valuable resource in more efficient and more sustainable ways. There are now many experts arguing that biomass should be exploited in chronologically sequential steps of material uses. These steps should be taken as often and as efficiently as possible, with the final step, energy recovery, coming at the very end of a product life-cycle. The principle here is called „cascading use“.

The totality of plant, animal and microbial biomass is based on photosynthetic primary production. Biomass can serve in its material applications as a raw material for producing goods of every kind and as a direct component of the products themselves. This contribution is what distinguishes the material uses from energy recovery – where biomass serves solely as an energy source – and also from food and feed uses. There are many theories and concepts about cascading use of biomass based on different conceptions of what “cascading” means. These concepts cover various aspects, from repairable and second-hand products, to complex combinations of main, by- and co-products in what are called primary and secondary cascades. We find here thematic overlaps with other approaches, such as circular economy and recycling. The term “cascading” can also have different meanings in different contexts. However, all the various concepts have one thing in common: at some stage at least one product has a material use.

Defining cascading use of biomass

The following definition of the cascading use at the product level is intended to clarify the essence of the existing theories and concepts:

  • Cascading use of biomass takes place when biomass is processed into a bio-based final product and this final product is used at least once more, either for materials or energy.
  • Cascading use of biomass is described as “single-stage” when the bio-based final product is directly used for energy.
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