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Chapter: Environmental Biotechnology: Theory and Application: Introduction to Biotechnology

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Scope for Use of Environmental Biotechnology

There are three key points for environmental biotechnology interventions, namely in the manufacturing process, waste management or pollution control

The Scope for Use

There are three key points for environmental biotechnology interventions, namely in the manufacturing process, waste management or pollution control, as shown in Figure 1.1.


 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 organ-isms 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 feedstocks 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 moni-toring 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 quan-tifiable 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 chem-icals, 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 up 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.

 As the previous brief examples show, the range of those which may bene-fit from the application of biotechnology is lengthy and includes the chemical, pharmaceutical, water, waste management and leisure industries, as well as man-ufacturing, the military, energy generation, agriculture and horticulture. Clearly, then, this may have relevance to the viability of these ventures and, as was mentioned at the outset, biotechnology is an essentially commercial activity. Environmental biotechnology must compete in a world governed by the bestpracticable environmental option (BPEO) and the best available techniques not entailing excessive cost (BATNEEC). Consequently, the economic aspect willalways have a large influence on the uptake of all initiatives in environmental biotechnology and, most particularly, in the selection of methods to be used in any given situation. It is impossible to divorce this context from the decision-making process. By the same token, the sector itself has its own implications for the wider economy.


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