Integrated Environmental Biotechnology
The essence of environmental biotechnology as an applied science, as we have set out to demonstrate in the preceding, is the harnessing of pre-existing organisms and natural cycles to bring about a desired goal. Some-times this is achieved by relatively unsophisticated means. At others it requires rather more in the way of engineering, adaptation or modification, in one form or another, to fit nature’s original to the intended purpose. Thus, though the exact form of any given iteration may differ, the underlying paradigm remains the same. Applying what is effectively a naturalistic model leads to some inevitable con-clusions with far-reaching implications for the future of this particular discipline.
The fundamental necessity of mutual interactions in nature is readily accepted and understood. Hence, the natural cycles obligatorily dovetail together at both the gross and the microscopic levels, with interplay existing between the organism and its environment as well as between the various central metabolic pathways. Since such integration exists already between bioprocesses, and these are the very stuff upon which environmental biotechnology is based, the potential for integrated applications is clear.
At its simplest, this involves the sequential use of individual technologies to provide a solution in a linked chain of successive steps, often termed a ‘treat-ment train’. The other extreme is the wider amalgamation of larger fundamental problems and their resolutions into a single cohesive whole. This book began by looking at the key intervention areas for environmental biotechnology and defined the three legs of that particular tripod as pollution, waste and manufac-turing. This theme has been further developed, to examine how old pollution can be cleaned up and how the rational treatment of solid wastes and effluent can contribute to the reduction of new pollution. So-called ‘clean’ technologies represent the logical end-point of this discussion, when the production processes themselves assist in the reduction of waste and the minimisation of pollution, in the ultimate integrated system.
All industrialised countries face the same three problems in attempting to marry economic growth with environmental responsibility, namely the need to marshal material resources, deal rationally with their waste and the requirement for adequate and affordable energy. This dichotomy of desire between compromising neithercommercial success nor environmental stewardship is particularly important for the long-term future of the economy. Over the years, a certain brand of extremist environmentalist thought has sought to demonise industry and commerce, decrying them and casting them in the role of enemy. This is scarcely helpful, for two reasons. Firstly, if any particular industry is actively damaging the environment, it is hardly likely to react constructively to criticism from its avowed detractors. Secondly, and perhaps much more importantly, industry in its widest sense is what has defined humanity from the outset. It accounts for what our Neolithic ancestors did, trading skins and flint axes across Europe; it is absurd to suggest that our collective future will be different. The way ahead, then, is to accept this and chart a course which, if it cannot do the most good in absolute terms, must settle for doing the least harm. In much the same way as some have vilified industry, there are those who have held the idea of a self-sustaining civilisation up to ridicule, arguing that ultimately this would have us living in mud huts, devoid of all the benefits of science and technology. The one view is as facile as the other.
The issue of sustainability has gained ever greater significance over recent years, and this seems set to continue in the future. In 1987, under the aegis of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Bruntland Commission coined a definition of sustainable development. Their concept of an approach which ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ has received widespread international acceptance. The main aims have been further developed into social progress to address the requirements of all, effective environmental stewardship, the maintenance of high and stable economic growth and levels of employment, and the utilisation of natural resources in a prudent fashion (DETR 1999). These goals also tend to offer strong commercial benefits and as a result, businesses have not been slow to see their potential. In a survey undertaken by the manage-ment consultancy, Arthur D. Little, of some 500 environmental, health and safety and other business executives in North America and Europe, 95% believed sus-tainable development was ‘important’. Around 80% said it had significant real business value, while 70% of the Europeans and more than 55% in the USA reported an active sustainable development approach to strategy and operations within their organisations, for reasons of perceived business advantage. In this context, increased efficiency, competitive streamlining, better public relations, work-force awareness and rising customer expectations were all cited, while the impact of technological innovation was universally recognised.
In many respects, the move towards integration is inevitable. We cannot un-screw one leg of our tripod without unbalancing the whole structure. Sustainable development inherently demands a cogent view of resource management, and this implicitly covers materials, waste and energy. It becomes impossible to consider them in isolation. If waste becomes viewed as raw-material-in-waiting, one bridge is clear. Between waste and energy, however, the current link is incineration and, although this route will always be relevant for some unwanted materials, thesituation is less than ideal. For one thing, burning denies the bridge discussed above, by allowing little or no opportunity for reclamation. If we extend this to larger environmental issues, like reducing CO2 production and the usage of fossil fuels, biomass, and hence environmental biotechnology, comes to occupy a pivotal position in the sustainability debate.