Biobased Materials in Construction

According to the European Commission, the EU predicts steady growth in the use of bio-based materials throughout industries[1]. Biomass is becoming an increasingly common raw material in various bio-based applications – from industrial chemicals to materials for the construction industry.

The last decades have seen a wave of innovation and the emergence of new bio-based products in the market, both as a reaction to the depletion of fossil resources and climate change as the possibilities of additional product functionalities.

It will become increasingly vital to provide accurate ways to measure the bio-based content of materials, as clear and transparent communication about the characteristics of bio-based products is essential to avoid confusion in the marketplace. 

In this article, we do a deep-dive into what biobased materials are, why they are beneficial (and when not) and which bio-based products we currently offer as a sustainable solution for the construction industry.

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What are biobased materials?

In short, ‘bio-based’ means ‘derived from biomass’ (according to European Standards). These biomass sources consist, at least partially, of biological materials and commonly include (parts of) plants, trees or animals, marine organisms, micro-organisms, algae, organic waste or forestry materials.

The term ‘bio-based’ only refers to the fact the product is wholly or partly derived from biomass. It does not refer to any other product characteristics such as LCA performance, biodegradability or sustainability of biomass used.

In our Download Centre, you can download the Sustainability Statement for CornWall® and Product Data for BioBasedTiles®. EPD’s for both products will be available as soon as production has been scaled up. 

What are the benefits of using biobased materials?

The urgency for circular construction using bio-based materials is more significant than ever. Buildings are responsible for around 50% of resource extraction and consumption and more than 30% of the EU’s total waste generated per year. In addition, buildings are responsible for 40% of the EU’s energy consumption and 36% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions[2].

Bio-based products can make the economy more sustainable and lower its dependence on fossil fuels. They can also open new opportunities in product development.

Biobased materials often incorporate residual streams from agriculture, horticulture, and forestry, meaning you don’t have to grow new materials. These materials are also renewable, so they grow back naturally and are part of our planet’s natural cycles. They also renew within a short-term period (generally ten years), so they don’t deplete the Earth.

Biobased materials also store CO₂ and can be climate neutral, but more on that below.

CornWall® is the sustainable alternative for interior wall cladding. Primarily made from corn waste.

Crafted from plant-based biomass, this wall-finishing material is sourced primarily from the cores of regional (Western Europe) corn cobs. This organic waste is widely available and usually destined for fermentation, burning as biomass or remaining on the field. CornWall is an alternative for ceramic wall cladding or other less sustainable composite materials such as HPL.

Do biobased products absorb CO₂?

Most biobased resources (such as trees and plants) absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere when they grow. In a bio-based product, the CO₂ will be temporarily stored in the material until it gets disposed of (e.g. burned).

If the storage time exceeds 100 years and the amount of CO₂ stored surpasses the material’s production and transport emissions, the material can be considered ‘climate neutral‘.

Are biobased products biodegradable?

Bio-based materials are often biodegradable, but this is not always the case. You can read more about this topic in this research paper.

Are biobased construction materials pest-proof?

Like all materials, bio-based materials used in construction can experience weathering and moisture challenges. Due to their organic nature, they can also be susceptible to attack by natural organisms. That is why during development, service- and performance data is essential. The material needs testing against the specific environment or organisms.

Production of CornWall® StoneCycling X Circular Matters
Circular Matters and StoneCycling Launch CornWall®

How is the bio-based content of materials measured?

When performing a bio-based (carbon) content measurement, the percentage of bio-based (carbon) content in a product compares to the total sum of bio-based and petroleum-based (carbon) content in that same product.

This information is important because it enables businesses and consumers to make more informed decisions regarding the sustainable sourcing of materials.

There are different standards for measuring the biobased content of certain materials. The main certification system in the US is ASTM D6866 – expressing the bio-based organic carbon content as a fraction of the total amount of organic carbon in a sample.

European standards differentiate between bio-based content and bio-based carbon content. The main European certification standards are EN 16640 (similar to the US system, but measuring both organic as inorganic carbon) and EN 16785-1 (measuring the total bio-based content of a material, also including bio-based oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, as well as carbon).

Read more about the EU and US bio-based standards in this whitepaper.

BioBasedTiles® are the first ever biobased tile that grows with the help of bacteria.

With the help of bacteria, this tile grew in less than three days. It’s 20% lighter than a concrete block but three times stronger. And the best thing? These tiles do not require kiln firing. This is your solution to lower your CO₂ footprint. Suitable for floors and walls on both interior and exterior surfaces.

Why should the bio-based content of a material be measured?

It is necessary to calculate the percentage of a material derived from bio-based content because, for cost or efficiency, the biomass sometimes gets combined with non-biomass feedstocks in the application.

That said, note that none of these standards measures a material’s biodegradability and that they also don’t convey information on the sources of biomass (whether or not it was produced sustainably if it came from residual biomass sources or if the plants used were specifically grown to create the biomass).

To make decisions on the sustainability of materials, we shouldn’t rely solely on bio-based (carbon) content but also consider the entire lifecycle of the biomass used.

Is a biobased material always ‘more sustainable’ than a non-biobased product?

The production of materials always comes with an environmental footprint. Even biobased materials can still harm our ecosystems or health.

Determining the sustainability of a biobased material compared to a fossil fuel-based material depends on multiple factors. You can think about local production circumstances, the type of biobased product in production, how the resources for the materials are grown, and the kind of biobased resources used.

While using bio-based raw materials enables the transition away from fossil-based sources, there is a risk that this shift can create new environmental problems such as threatening biodiversity, irrigation issues in countries with water scarcity, the use of pesticides/fertilisers/fossil fuels for cultivation and harvesting, soil depletion, and land-use conflicts.

Products produced using bio-based materials are therefore not inherently ‘more sustainable’. The environmental impact of the entire production process must be considered via Life Cycle Assessments (LCA).


Is bio-based building the future?

Bio-based building is an innovative market with a rapidly growing base of new providers and materials. Successfully implementing a circular project using bio-based applications requires an intensive collaboration between parties to experiment and innovate. For all stakeholders, it’s essential to have a common goal in mind to be transparent about the risks and responsibilities.

At StoneCycling, we’ve found that successful realisations of biobased construction projects characterise by setting realistic objectives and ambitions, support within the organisation and with key stakeholders, taking sufficient time in all phases of the process, being open to innovation in this particular market, a strong focus on cooperation and monitoring the process and capturing and sharing knowledge and experiences to help everyone go a step further!

We strongly believe that only through experimentation and learning in practice can biobased building become the norm in the future. Are you interested in our bio based building materials CornWall® or BioBasedTiles®? Click here to see how they are made and order your samples right away. 

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