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Smarter Cities

Imagining An Economy Built Around Plants, Not Plastic

Extracting sugar cane juice in Colombia
Extracting sugar cane juice in Colombia
Guillermo León Montoya


BOGOTA — As unlikely as it may sound, many of the countries we closely associate with planning and foresight are turning their attention to Colombia for inspiration on how to address the parallel problems of industry pollution, energy production and food security.

The South American country boasts enviable geographical and climatic conditions, exceptional biodiversity and above all, a varied and preponderant farming sector. Together these factors are sparking talk about what some call the "new economy" or "bioeconomy."

This new way of looking at economic growth may help rectify the serious environmental harm done by the excesses of the industrial revolution model, which has turned the planet into a trash heap of oil-derived products like plastics. These materials — used for everything from food and drink packaging to chairs, baskets, vehicle parts, pesticides, paint, detergents, solvents, tires and other items — will take hundreds, even thousands of years to disappear through biodegradation.

The derivatives have one more drawback, namely that oil is finite and could run out within decades. And yet our governments seem to be ignoring this scenario. They're also failing to plan for sustainable economies to better care for our most precious asset: the environment we live in.

The real irony here is that our mistreated planet is already providing the best option to ensure food security, clean energy and even the chemical products we most commonly use. The answer, if we choose to see it, is right in front of us: plants.

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Collecting bagasse waste in a sugar cane processing factory — Photo: RHaworth/GFDL

We owe our lives to these incredible organisms, which are already produced and harvested efficiently. The only thing missing is to make better use of them. Imagine if all of the aforementioned products were made not with plastics, but with recycled and biodegradable material that could be reincorporated into biological processes. We’d have what is known as a circular economy of products, a sustainable cycle.

Colombia is in a privileged position to contribute to this new economy because of the specific crops its produces: bananas, sugar cane, rice, African palm, rubber, coffee, cocoa, potatoes, corn and sorghum. Sugar cane, for example, provides the white sugar people use for cookies, candies and just about every other prepared food product. But it also produces a waste byproduct called bagasse, which can be used to make paper, processed to make alcohol fuel, or burned to run generators. Imagine if we took the same approach with all the other crops?

Until recently, few firms ventured in this direction. But today, companies such as Green Biologics, Beta-Renewables, Avantium, Genomatica, Biocycle and the Colombian firm Sucroal are indicative of an evolving outlook in the business world, and acting as possible precursors of a world freed of dependence on fossil fuels. If you have a business in Colombia, it might be time to discard the past and step forward into the bioeconomy.

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