Is increasing interest in the development of a more circular economy also compatible with Brexit?
The food and drink sector is a key part of Britain’s economy and a major employer as well as a significant energy and natural resource user. Our manufacturers will develop new markets while maintaining their EU sales, but they also need some clarity from Government.
Will leaving the EU impact on our food and drink sector?
The message from a seminar on Brexit that I attended last week is that the Government must show more concern about how leaving the EU will impact on our food and drink sector and its export capability. In addition to addressing issues like regulation and access to labour, the post-Brexit industrial strategy should also focus on the development of on-site bio-energy capability.
In addition to a lower exchange rate, what support does British industry need to remain fully competitive in both EU and global markets? For instance, will British firms be obliged to meet European sustainability criteria to avoid being penalised in the single market?
Will businesses continue to invest in carbon reduction or development of a more circular approach to resource management? Given that the UK is over-reliant on imported renewable energy technology, will Ministers seek to support the development of British technology in the renewables sector?
About 60% of our food and drink exports are destined to EU member states but some sectors rely more heavily on exports. For instance, Scotland’s whisky distillers are a key export sector that will be affected by changes in the rules of access to European markets.
Whisky makes up a significant proportion of the UK’s food and drinks exports (about 25% – also more Scotch whisky is sold in France each month than annual sales of Cognac).
Hence, the outcome of Brexit negotiations is of importance to the food and beverage industry, including the distillery sector. We will carry on enjoying French cheese and quaffing European wines, while our European neighbours are sure to continue to drink Scotch whisky while buying confectionery and other products.
However, as part of continued EU access, we will need to ensure exported products match sustainability criteria imposed by policy makers in Brussels.
SWA setting tougher sustainability targets
Scotland’s distillery sector is very aware of the need to reduce its environmental impact and carbon emissions and today more distilleries are generating bioenergy while disposing of their bio-degradable residues.
With increased attention on the sectors’ environmental impact, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) recently set tougher sustainability targets, encouraging more distillers to make use of sources of renewable energy, including anaerobic digestion (AD).
By turning their unwanted production residues into bioenergy and developing a more circular economy, distilleries can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and cut their GHG emissions.
Feedstocks from the distillation process suited to on-site digestion are Pot Ale (the co-product produced during the initial distillation) and Spent Lees (from the second distillation), along with other wash waters.
Also, residues from the plants that process the spent grain from distilleries into cattle feed, on which many Scottish beef cattle are fed, can also be turned into bioenergy.
The technology exists to handle the relatively dilute but energy-rich residual co-products from the production of the raw whisky spirit. Hence, on-site anaerobic digestion of these co-products aligns very closely the SWA strategy:
- Reducing energy use – on-site AD can make a major contribution to reducing fossil fuel use and achieving the SWA target of 80% by 2050.
- Cutting GHG emissions – replacing fossil fuel (particularly heavy fuel oil) with bioenergy, will have a significant impact on the sectors’ emissions.
- Responsible water use – more efficient water use is supported by on-site AD – cleansed water suited to river discharge can also be re-used on site.
- Embracing the Circular Economy – recovery and re-use of resources (by extracting value from bio-residues) will facilitate a zero waste approach.
- Sustainable Land Use – residual biosolids from AD contain nutrients and can be spread on land used to grow the grain supplied to distilleries.
On-site bio-energy plants illustrate how the sector is embracing the SWA strategy
In addition, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is putting forward plans for a more circular approach to resource use – by achieving low carbon emissions, improving the use of materials and cutting fossil fuel use, including the imposition of penalties on industrial sites.
Our on-site bio-energy plants at Glendullan and Dailuaine illustrate how the sector is embracing the SWA strategy. Other larger distillery sites have installed AD plants to handle co-products or deployed biomass and other renewable heat technologies.
However, while larger companies are taking the lead, a more creative approach is required to support other businesses, in particular, smaller distillery sites, to invest in on-site renewables and secure similar benefits.
Given the pressure to reduce its environmental footprint, the industry should back deployment of bio-energy technologies on less accessible distillery sites (often reliant on more expensive fossil fuels), as well as the craft distilleries being set up, to meet demand for premium whisky.
Alongside growing interest in the circular economy from SEPA and the SWA, sustained support for on-site renewables from the British and Scottish Governments will encourage even more smaller projects on SME sites. Alongside other challenges, stakeholders in the distillery sector recognise the need for increased energy efficiency.
Can more be done to help smaller craft sites or more remote malt distilleries to secure sustainability benefits to available to the major companies?