Is ‘green’ always good?

Friday 11 Feb 22


Sumesh Sukumara
Senior Researcher
DTU Biosustain
+45 93 51 12 08

Even though the field of biotechnology has always been thought to be inherently ‘green’ or ‘good’ sometimes that isn’t necessarily so. But with the new Sustainable Innovation Office at DTU Biosustain a road has been paved to guide projects in realizing its impacts and to improve the sustainability performance, while being commercially viable.

Imagine this: On a table before you stand two plastic bottles. One is made from petroleum-based chemistry and cannot be recycled. The other one is bio-based and recyclable. Guessing which of the two is the more sustainable choice shouldn’t be too hard. Or is it?
If you look at both the economic and the environmental impact of the two bottles it turns out, that they are equally sustainable, depending on the perspective one chooses, says the calculations of the Sustainability and Innovation Office (SIO) at DTU Biosustain.

“It adds up to which yardstick you use for sustainability,” says Sumesh Sukumara, who is the team leader and senior researcher of SIO. “If you use economics and recyclability, petroleum will make a better case. However, if you prefer renewable feedstock and greenhouse emissions as a measure, the bio-based product tends to outperform the contemporary. To make it even more complex, there are several more measures and perspectives out there,” emphasizes Sumesh Sukumara and warns that it is a common mistake to think that ‘going green’ is always more sustainable.

“Biotechnology has long been believed to be inherently good, and thus the field has been complacent for the past decades that “Green is Good”. We here at SIO are challenging that. In fact, we say that a poorly designed bio-based process could be even worse than its petroleum- or chemical alternative,” says Sumesh Sukumara.

SIO has been cracking numbers for about a year now with the intent of guiding the innovation of new and ongoing projects. The thought is to quantify, and potentially reduce the broader set of impacts of bio-based technologies, explains Sumesh Sukumara.

“What we have created here is a multi-disciplinary unit, responsible for assessing innovations in improving the current state of production. It does so while simultaneously enhancing economic and environmental performance, inherent to the products,” explains Sumesh Sukumara who leads a diverse team of professionals educated in engineering, economics and environmental science.

Promising results
After months of analyzing various projects being done at DTU Biosustain the results and conclusions of SIO are now beginning to show. The first project to have undergone SIOs sustainability assessments are the work being done at DTU Biosustain to create a bio-based replacement for the indigo color that is used to dye blue jeans. It is estimated that one in two people worldwide wears a pair of blue jeans every day and as the process of dyeing these widely used pants is extremely polluting, it has been the hope of the scientists involved that the price of this replacement wouldn’t be so high as to make the textile industry loose interest. Luckily the result is to the contrary.

“The calculations of SIO show that if the production switches from the present petroleum-based indigo to a bio-based version the prize of an average pair of jeans will typically be around a dollar more. Given that it is also possible to use the facilities that’s already dyeing the pants around the world this is a huge opportunity for the fashion industry to shed themselves of one of the massive environmental issues that have plagued them for so long,” says Sumesh Sukumara who predicts that a lot of other projects at DTU Biosustain will be able to benefit from SIOs approach.

From a nerdy exercise to tangible science
The team leader and his staff is excited to see their work bearing fruit and to witness firsthand that the processed data is of use for both the scientists of DTU Biosustain but also to the world at large.

“Often, society has seen advances in biotech science as a “nerdy exercise” but with this approach the real contribution and purpose of science becomes tangible. Our data tells us exactly what it would mean to you and me as human beings if our scientists succeed in their lab experiments. Not just with impassioned statements but in a rational, substantial and quantifiable manner.”

The early bird eats the worm
Even though the idea of looking at both the economic and the environmental impact of projects isn’t new – in the field of chemical engineering this has been done at late stages in the process for 20 years or so – what is unique for this office is its capability to do it at an early state. As the old saying goes “the early bird eats the worm” and this approach enables researchers to make necessary modifications to their technology from the very beginning and all through the development stages. This leads to a proper channeling of resources and an optimization of both the economic and the environmental performance. Benefits and a huge potential that cannot be ignored by the industry, Sumesh Sukumara predicts.

“Our workflows and scientific tools are very scalable and adaptable to industrial stakeholders and industries in Biotech. Basically, any bio-based firm can get insights into how they can make strategic investment in resources and in the early research and development stages industrial partners can use our developed methods to see future impacts of their investment. Also, we can provide retrospective analysis on their products that have not been evaluated for its sustainability assessment,” says Sumesh Sukumara.

3 facts about the Sustainability and Innovation Office (SIO)

  • SIO is situated at DTU Biosustain and collaborates with DTU Management, DTU Chemical Engineering, The University of Iceland and the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, India.


  • SIO consists of a unique conglomeration of backgrounds combining environmental- industrial- and chemical engineering with environmental economy in a collaboration with Bio /metabolic engineers at DTU Biosustain.


  • SIO does a combined economic and environmental impact estimation at the early stage of projects. This enables researchers in making necessary modifications to their technology early in the development stages which leads to a proper channeling of resources towards enhancing sustainability.


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