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Sustainability of Biomaterials in

understanding the issues for products using plant- and animal-based

by Dr Jo Mundy
with contributions from John Hutchinson, Dr Gary Newman and Mark
grows and
for sustainability rises, much
attention is being given to the use of
materials from plants and animals as
the basis for a wide range of
products. However, it is extremely
Commercial issues.........................................................................2
difficult to get a clear picture of the
Production and procurement................................................2
consequences of using such
Economic issues...................................................................3
'biomaterials' as alternatives to
Practical issues.....................................................................3
Social issues..................................................................................4
existing (typically non-biological)
Environmental performance issues...............................................4
Environmental problems related to agricultural systems....5

Methodological problems for agricultural LCAs...................5

This paper is aimed at
manufacturers interested in
manufacturing with these products
and those interested in selecting
them. It is also of interest to those
producing policy relating to these
materials and researchers seeking to assess them.

The paper reviews the key economic, social and environmental issues for
biomaterials and the approaches being taken to address them. It highlights the
need to ensure that these materials are assessed in a way that is comparable to
approaches being used to assess existing materials that are performing the same

1 Background
Biomaterials have a long history of use as construction materials, such as timber for
framing, boarding and roofing, and reeds and straw for roofing and flooring. Where
the use of these materials is well established and their performance known then

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

they continue to be used for these applications. However, where such materials are
used in novel applications or novel combinations, or both, then there may be
resistance to their uptake unless their performance in practical, economic and
environmental terms can be demonstrated.
Biomaterials present us with the opportunity to capture and exploit properties that
have evolved in nature to provide certain performance characteristics. Biomaterials
have the potential to provide construction materials with the following benefits:

Capture and storage of carbon extracted from atmospheric CO 2 by recent

Sustainable production as crops grown annually or as longer harvest-cycle
Biodegradability at end of life. (Controlled decay inside an anaerobic digester
would produce both organic fertiliser and bio-methane to supply energy)
Low or almost zero linear coefficients of thermal expansion
The property of controlling temperature and humidity in enclosed spaces by
phase changes of water in cells
High vapour diffusivity and 'Fickian' vapour dispersal
Usually high specific heat capacity
Low thermal diffusivity
Often good performance-to-weight ratios
Lower embodied energy.

Achieving lower embodied energy requires us to minimise the processes and

materials, such as coupling agents, synthetic glues, biocides, preservatives and fireretardants, used to produce the final product. The more we are able to deploy nature's
answers to adhesion and preservation, the less we will need to use man-made
A key question in the development of biomaterials is: "Should we work with a
biomaterial's inherent properties or should we process it to produce a different
structure and achieve a different performance?" A key criterion for judging this
question's answers is the requirement for sustainable development. This paper
explores the economic, social and environmental issues that should be assessed when
seeking to evaluate the sustainability of biomaterial products.

2 Commercial issues
2.1 Production and procurement
Many applications of bio-based materials in construction are relatively new and the
market structure characterised by a low concentration of SMEs that are making the

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

transition to a more mainstream model. These business models are currently
operating in the UK:
a) Direct manufacture
Small scale running of high capacity equipment - operating plants suboptimally is likely to result in more inputs per unit of production and so
increase the environmental burden of associated with each unit of
production. However, when demand eventually meets capacity, reduced
unit impacts may be achieved via the effects of scale and specialised
production equipment.
Small scale production using low capacity equipment - this may offer a
lower impact model particularly if local materials are sourced and sold
locally for products with relatively little processing or additional materials.
However, energy and other environmental impacts may be greater for
certain materials when processing methods are applied on a very small
scale. This appears to be the case for raw wool scouring for instance.
b) Utilise existing UK capacity - the use of spare capacity in complimentary
industries within the UK to produce bio-based materials for construction. This
enables the biomaterial company to benefit from scale economies and
associated environmental benefits from an earlier stage. In the medium term,
sharing capacity may not be the most efficient way of minimising environmental
impacts or maximising the impact of specialisation. This approach reduces the
impact of building new capacity in the short term and can allow for an efficient
transition from small to large scale dedicated production.
c) Import and distribute - the importing and distribution of biomaterials from
established overseas markets such as Germany. The biomaterial company can
benefit from established scale economies and potentially better social and
environmental standards of production. Certain bio-based materials such as
hemp and flax are not widely available in the UK so sourcing these types of
material from overseas provides a way of utilising these crops from areas where
they are abundant. However, the energy-related impacts will depend on the
energy mix of the country of origin plus there are additional transport impacts,
particularly important for low density finished goods.



The nascent state of the segment means there are few standards that embrace the
sector and the various product groups within. As such products can fail to meet the
expectations of specifiers. This can be addressed through technical approvals such as
British Board of Agrment (BBA) certification or the European Technical Approval (ETA)
for established products such as insulation. However, it can prove more difficult for
newer or novel applications to gain standard recognition.

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

The different inherent properties of bio-based materials can also make standardised
tests derived for synthetic products difficult to apply and can affect the results. For
example, 'hot-box' measurement of thermal conductivity of sheep's wool generates
anomalous variation in the lambda value. The initial result is very good. It can be as
low as 0.029 Wm-1K-1 for a densely woven textile or mat. The value then increases
steadily as heat continues to be applied. Most quoted lambda values for wool are
around 0.035 Wm-1K-1; good, but not as good as the best synthetic insulations. It is not
clear if this effect is caused by the hygrothermal properties of the sheep's wool.

2.3 Economic issues

The economics of non-timber biomaterial supply is greatly influence by local and
national agricultural policy. In the case of UK sheeps wool, all wool must be
purchased through the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) scheme, which can result
in a great disparity between the final processed cost of fibre compared to the farm
gate price. The nature of the BWMB scheme can also cause large fluctuations in raw
material costs that can affect stable finished goods prices. Similarly, the availability
and cost of crop fibres such as hemp or flax can be influenced by agricultural subsidies
and opportunity costs associated with demand for other crops. The availability of
hemp recently has been strongly affected by the downturn in the automotive sector,
since this is a key sector for hemp and a strong driver for its production. Climate and
seasonality factors can also introduce additional uncertainties. All of these factors
create a relatively complex supply chain which ultimately contributes to the cost of
finished goods.

2.4 Practical issues

As with other production processes using input materials that are inherently variable,
producing biomaterials with consistent physical or mechanical properties can be a
challenge. The producer is also subject to seasonal availability issues and the
influence of the climate prevailing during the growing period on the quality of the
input material and ultimately on the performance of the final product.
Biomaterials have additional properties that are less widely understood and often
more difficult to quantify such their hygroscopic and hygrothermal properties. Natural
fibres are capable of binding between 25% and 40% of their weight in moisture
meaning they can act as buffers or sinks for moisture within certain building
structures. The ability of natural fibres to bind moisture leads to greater hygrothermal
stability which can be an important property for certain applications such as thermal
insulation where the insulation performance can be greatly influence by the presence

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

of free moisture. This ability to take up moisture also influences their potential
durability and service life.
There are also practical issues to be addressed during the life of these materials; their
performance in use is highly influenced by whether appropriate design decisions were
taken to incorporate them into the building to achieve their potential service life.

Social issues

Environmental and social issues surrounding the supply of bio materials have been
well recognised in the field of forestry and sustainable forest management schemes,
such as the schemes of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Pan European Forestry
Council, have been developed to help assess this aspect. Whereas these may
represent more extreme aspects, they highlight the importance of responsible
sourcing to the biomaterials sector. Sourced and utilised responsibly, biomaterials
offer the opportunity to utilise highly sustainable material sources in a variety of enduses and to contribute to the sustainability goals of the construction sector as a whole.
Biomaterials in construction also face the same issues as the biofuels sector, as
described in the Gallagher Review, the key ones being the potential displacement of
food crops and the Climate Change impacts of changing land use. It is also possible
that biomaterials will come under pressure in the area of water consumption as
supplies of fresh water come under ever greater stress.

Environmental performance issues

Agricultural systems raise particularly complex issues for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
methodology. These issues include:

Allocation between co-products (including stored carbon benefits)

The selection of agricultural reference systems
Emissions from fertilisers and biocides in the field
The origin and transport of commodity products
The handling of biogenic emissions such as N 2O emissions from agricultural soils
The use and choice of a reference land use system
The end-of-life scenario and associated assumptions (particularly the assumed
proportion of methane emitted during biodegradation).

4.1 Environmental problems related to agricultural systems

The following environmental problems have been identified for agricultural systems
(Mil i Canals, 2003):

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

Energy consumption (contributing to climate change, acid rain, resource depletion

The use of nitrates and phosphates (causing pollution of surface- and groundwater)
Agri-chemical use (resulting in toxicity impacts)
Reducing soil quality (producing soil degradation, pollution, erosion etc.)
Water depletion
Decrease of biodiversity due to prevalence of mono-culture.

4.2 Methodological problems for agricultural LCAs

These relate to:
1. Method choice
2. Goal definition and functional unit
3. Inventory analysis
Processes included and capital goods
Substance flows to and from soil
Choice of data sources with respect to the studys goal
Location of nutrient emissions
Groundwater abstraction and link with desiccation
Crop rotation
4. Classification and Characterisation
5. Sustainability indicators
6. End of life

4.2.1 Method choice

LCA was developed to be location-independent (Wegener Sleeswijk et al., 1996).
However, in agriculture, differences in local conditions, such as soil type and climate,
may influence the environmental impacts resulting from a given emission. Inventory
data may be very dependent upon local conditions; site-dependent aspects might
have a greater influence on an agricultural LCAs results than activity-dependent

4.2.2 Goal definition and functional unit

Most agricultural LCAs are aimed at assessing the impacts of producing foods;
agricultural systems are typically multi-functional ( Mil i Canals, 2003); they can be
related to keeping the land to a definite appearance as well as to the production of
The functional unit for non-food crops (whether wholly non-food, e.g. hemp, or partially
as the non-food part of a food crop, e.g. wheat straw) can also be faced with the

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

complication of multiple functions from the system. However, the purpose of the nonfood product will guide the selection of the functional unit. A study may produce a
delivered unit rather than a functional unit, with the delivered unit being an amount
of the non-food crop material typically from cradle-to-farm (or factory) gate.

4.2.3 Inventory Analysis

The main Life Cycle Inventory Assessment (LCIA) topic in reported agricultural LCA
studies appears to be the need to develop new impact categories addressing the
impacts caused by agricultural systems. The issues of land use, land quality and
biodiversity have received particular attention.
Three aspects related to agricultural land use have been highlighted ( Cowell and Clift,
1997): actual or potential productivity of land; effects on biodiversity, and aesthetic
value of landscapes. Soil quality and generic land quality indicators have been studied
by many to assess the impacts on potential productivity of land. The following have
been suggested Mattsson et al. (2000) as useful indicators of long-term soil fertility and
biodiversity: soil erosion, soil organic matter, soil structure, soil pH, phosphorus and
potassium status of the soil, and the impact on biodiversity. However, they
acknowledge that these indicators are a mix of quantitative and qualitative and
difficult to aggregate.
Biodiversity indicators have been researched by many and the Hemeroby concept
explored (see Brentrup et al. (2002) for a review), which considers a classification scheme for
land based on its naturalness.
However, there is no single definition of land use; some researchers exclude landscape
effects, others distinguish between the impacts of occupation and ecosystem impacts
that change the time needed for the ecosystem to return to its natural state. There is
general consensus that land use covers any human activity requiring land to carry it

4.2.4 Boundaries
Since there are no factory walls it can be difficult to answer the question, where does
the agricultural system border the environment system?
How the soil is regarded can have a considerable influence on the final results: some
have argued for its exclusion but others regard it as an ancillary product that is
required by the system and altered by it, even though it does not remain part of the
final product. The alteration of the soil by the agricultural system introduces a time
boundary consideration as it has implications for future activities - this is covered in
the section on crop rotation.
Cowell (1998) raised the question of time boundaries and suggested that activities in
the past affecting actual productivity should also be included in the analysis. Examples

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

of such activities are fertiliser use that is useful for more than one crop, hedge
establishment and maintenance etc. Therefore, the system under study should include
all these relevant activities, and so comprise full crop rotations, whole forest rotations,
Accounting for crop rotations is addressed in a subsequent section.
Taking time into account for forest-based products presents practical problems in that
a forest stand ready for harvest now in the UK was planted 70 to 100 years ago, and
little or no information is available on the practices applied to that stand to establish
and maintain it. It is also true that a stand planted now will have known establishment
practices but its future management, whilst planned now, is likely to vary over its 70to 100-year life time. Consequently, time-dependency is usually addressed by
assuming that past and future practices are the same as those used currently. to be assessed and capital goods
This presents a particular challenge - it is not practical to assess all activities relating
to a product's production and the process tree must be cut off at various points.
Deciding what processes to assess and what to exclude requires an understanding of
the system and the likely impacts; many state that the only processes that can be
omitted are those that contribute scarcely if at all to the environmental interventions
associated with the functional unit though this requires experience to assess
because it is difficult to determine how important a process is until its contribution to
the whole has been assessed.
The following list sets out the agricultural processes that should typically be included
in an LCA for agricultural products (Wegener Sleeswijk et al., 1996):
1. crop cultivation
a. fertiliser use (materials and application fuels)
b. crop protection (materials and application fuels)
c. soil tillage (application fuels)
d. irrigation (extraction and application fuels)
e. sowing (materials and application fuels)
f. harvesting (application fuels and organic waste disposal)
g. capital goods: production and maintenance of machinery, farm tracks and
roads and buildings.
2. livestock breeding
a. feeding (materials and application fuels)
b. care (materials and application fuels)
c. manure-related activities (materials , treatment and application fuels, and
waste manure disposal)
d. shed maintenance (materials, application fuels, and waste disposal)
e. milking (materials and machinery fuel use)

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

For other processes, the choice for or against inclusion can be made using cut-off
rules. The text below has been extracted from ISO 14044 (2006) to illustrate this
approach (see section of ISO 14044 for more details):
Several cut-off criteria are used in LCA practice to decide which inputs are to be
included in the assessment, such as mass, energy and environmental
significance. Making the initial identification of inputs based on mass
contribution alone may result in important inputs being omitted from the study.
Accordingly, energy and environmental significance should also be used as cutoff criteria in this process.
a) Mass: an appropriate decision, when using mass as a criterion, would require
the inclusion in the study of all inputs that cumulatively contribute more than a
defined percentage to the mass input of the product system being modelled.
b) Energy: similarly, an appropriate decision, when using energy as a criterion,
would require the inclusion in the study of those inputs that cumulatively
contribute more than a defined percentage of the product systems energy
c) Environmental significance: decisions on cut-off criteria should be made to
include inputs that contribute more than an additional defined amount of the
estimated quantity of individual data of the product system that are specially
selected because of environmental relevance.
EN 15804 (2012) has been developed as a means of harmonising the approach to
producing EPD for construction products. En 15804 adopts this approach and specifies
a cut-off of 5% for energy and mass.
In practice, capital goods are often not considered in an LCA, because their
contribution to the aggregate environmental score of a product unit or functional unit
is deemed negligible (there is also the practical consideration that there is often
insufficient time to evaluate the contribution from capital goods). However, it can be
argued that machinery and infrastructure are often used less efficiently in agricultural
systems than in industrial systems, and that the allocation of their production to the
functional unit is usually relevant (Cowell and Clift, 1997).
Another reason for omitting capital goods from an LCA is that there is frequently little
difference in their use between two comparable product systems. For agriculture, if
per-hectare yields differ then this assumption is wrong.
Agricultural and forestry activities employ a number of capital goods with relatively
short service lives, e.g. combine harvesters and harvester-forwarders, and a number
of capital goods that require relatively large amounts of material, e.g. farm or forest
tracks and roads. The omission of machinery or infrastructure may have a relatively
large influence on the final result. The environmental interventions associated with the
production and maintenance of machinery therefore needs to be included in an LCA

Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

for agricultural products. Similarly, the contribution of infrastructure should not simply
be ignored. However, farm buildings can generally be omitted from the study, except
in the case of greenhouse horticulture and in studies where farm buildings are the
main source of differences between systems. flows to and from soil

If the soil is included in the LCA then all inputs to the soil such as fertiliser and manure
should in principle be classified as causing Eutrophication (i.e. nutrifying). Besides
emissions of minerals and other substances to the soil, agriculture also involves
extraction of these substances from the soil. In the inventory phase of an LCA, the
quantity of a substance extracted from the soil should be subtracted from the quantity
emitted to the soil, because the extracted substance held in the crop has no
environmental impact. This is particularly relevant for substances present in fertiliser
It has been proposed that a soil mineral balance should be used to determine what
fraction of the applied mineral supplements end up in the environment ( Wegener
Sleeswijk et al., 1996). This balance can be used to calculate the emission, by subtracting
all outputs from all inputs. For annual crops, e.g. most arable crops, the long-term
equilibrium situation can be taken as the point of departure; i.e. it is assumed that, on
balance, there is no accumulation of nitrogen. The excess nitrogen is then divided over
volatilisation, run-off, leaching and denitrification the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) have derived approaches for calculating in-field losses
associated with synthetic and organic fertilisers. However, in the case of perennial or
long-term crops, such as grass or trees, the assumption of no long-term accumulation
of nitrogen is no longer valid, and accumulation should be included in the balance. For
phosphorus a similar but simpler balance can be drawn up but there is accumulation in
the soil. The excess phosphorus is divided over leaching, run-off and accumulation.
A similar balance should also be drawn up for other substances added to the soil, such
as heavy metals.
Soil-free production, such as substrate cropping, does not require a soil mineral
balance. of data sources with respect to the studys goal

The agricultural sector comprises a large number of individual farm enterprises with
no two farms being identical. This means that the goal of the study should be used to
guide whether it is appropriate to opt for average data, normative or representative
data, or data on individual farms. With each of these choices, but particularly in the
case of average data, the spread of results due to the spread of the raw data must be
accounted for. Examples of goal-appropriate data sources are:


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

To investigate the environmental impacts associated with milk sold in

supermarkets, average data on milk production is appropriate
To compare current milk-production methods, average data on the companies
applying the various production methods can be used
To understand which elements of an individual product (system) have the
greatest bearing on the environmental impacts, data specific to that product
(system) are needed.
If the government wishes to use LCA to back up a policy to encourage or
discourage a given production method, normative data specific to companies
applying the production method in question are appropriate. of nutrient emissions

It has been proposed that, contrary to conventional LCA, nutrient accumulation in the
soil requires a distinction between problem areas where nitrification constitutes a
problem, e.g. in large parts of Western Europe and non-problem areas where
nitrification does not form a problem (virtually the entire 3 rd World, where soil
exhaustion is the problem) is needed (Wegener Sleeswijk et al,. 1996).
In areas where Eutrophication (nutrification) is not a problem, then the accumulation
of minerals in the soil should not be classified as a nutrifying emission. This means
that in the inventory phase a distinction must already be made, on the basis of the
location of the emission, between areas where nutrification is a problem and areas
where it is not. Emissions of soil-supplement minerals to other environmental media,
via run-off, leaching and volatilisation, are classified as nutrifying, because these
emissions can lead to Eutrophication of surface waters or of areas in the vicinity of the
non-problem area. If it is unknown whether Eutrophication constitutes a problem in a
given area, all nutrifying emissions should be regarded as causing Eutrophication. abstraction and link with desiccation
LCA currently gives no consideration to desiccation, because this is considered to be a
local problem. In agriculture, however, desiccation does constitute a major
environmental problem. Key determining factors in the problem of desiccation are
drainage, watertable management and groundwater abstraction. Drainage and
watertable management are highly location-specific and are difficult to relate to a
functional unit of product and therefore cannot currently be included in an LCA.
Desiccation should consequently only be included if it is governed largely by the direct
or indirect withdrawal of groundwater in the area in question.
It has been advocated that, as for Eutrophication, allowance should be made for the
difference between problem and non-problem areas. Groundwater abstraction should
not be classified as desiccating in areas where there is no desiccation problem, or in
areas where groundwater abstraction does not contribute to this problem (for
example, where surface water levels are being kept artificially low thus determining
the degree of desiccation). If it is unknown whether a groundwater-abstraction process
contributes to desiccation, groundwater abstraction should be classified as


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

ISO is currently working on the production of a water footprint standard (ISO 14046)
that is based on LCA.
Allocation is the sharing of environmental burdens between the products of a multioutput process. ISO 14041 (1998) recommends that LCA studies should:

Avoid allocation wherever possible by dividing the shared unit process into subprocesses
Allocate on any underlying physical relationship
Allocate on a relevant relationship.

EN 15804 also advocates the avoidance of allocation wherever possible giving priority
to a physical relationship where processes can be subdivided and to a value
(economic) approach when subdivision is not possible.
As noted earlier, co-production is common in agriculture. The various parts of animals
and plants produced are often used for different applications. Before allocation is
undertaken, it must therefore be clear that multi-output processes have as far as
possible been divided into single-output processes. Only for those processes that
cannot be further subdivided should allocation be carried out, and this should be done
on the basis of economic value.
If manure is used in arable farming, recycling is taking place and the environmental
interventions associated with the processes involved (storage, transport, processing)
should be allocated to the product system that pays for these processes. If payment is
collective, e.g. in the case of storage in a manure centre, interventions should be
allocate on the basis of the ratio between the cost paid by the arable farmer and the
cost paid by the cattle farmer. Again, these rules are based on economic value.
The inclusion of complete rotation schemes can also present allocation issues. It has
been suggested that the inclusion of soil quality and quantity into the LCIA greatly
reduces the allocation problem for crops but this requires the development of a
convenient impact indicator.
The carbon cycle also presents an allocation problem in agricultural systems. Some
consider it a negative climate change impact and account for it whereas others regard
the storage as happening over too brief a period with the CO 2 released again when the
material degrades. This is sensible for food crops where the lifetime of the product is
very short but it is not the case for non-food crops used in construction products, for
example, the Green Guide uses a 60-year study period for assessing building element
specifications. Consequently, CO2 sequestration is taken into account along with endof-life scenarios that include disposal in landfill where part of the sequestered carbon
will be emitted as methane; the Global Warming Potential of methane is more than 20
times that of CO2 over a 100-year period1.


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction rotation
Agricultural crops are typically cultivated in a system of crop rotation, with different
crops being cultivated in succession on a given plot of land. If a comparison is being
made between different crop-rotation schemes, this will cause no extra allocation
problems. In practice though, such a comparison will not often be useful, because LCA
is a tool designed for comparing the environmental impacts of various different
products. What will usually be compared is a product from one crop-rotation scheme
with one from another rotation scheme. This gives rise to difficulties, because the
various crops and the activities performed in cultivating these crops often also have
consequences for the crops grown later in the rotation scheme. Examples include:

Soil fumigation carried out for potatoes but also benefiting other crops
Application of organic fertilisers in a given crop, with some fraction of the
minerals only being taken up after the following crop has been sown.

These allocation problems cannot simply be ignored in an LCA. The question Why is a
given activity performed? can be used to guide decisions. For example, the soil
fumigants applied in potato cultivation would not be used if potatoes were not
included in the crop-rotation scheme. The environmental interventions associated with
the soil fumigants should therefore be allocated entirely to the potatoes, even if
benefits accrue to other crops too. In the same way, the environmental interventions
associated with the application of nitrogen fertiliser are allocated to the crop to which
the fertiliser dressing is applied, while the environmental interventions associated with
application of phosphate and potassium are divided over the crops in the rotation on
the basis of the recommended dressings for each individual crop.
It has been recommended that organic matter is allocated on the basis of the share of
the various crops in the crop rotation scheme (expressed in terms of space
requirements, ha.year). When multiple fertilisers (manure and other animal wastes, in
particular) are applied, the emissions occurring up until the moment the mineral reach
the soil (emissions during storage, transport and application) are divided over the
various crops on the basis of the economic value of the minerals in the fertilisers.

Climate Change impacts can be assessed for effects occurring over a 20-year, 100year or 500-year timeframe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regularly
reviews and updates the characterisation factors for all greenhouse gases. The BRE
methodology assesses Climate Change over the 100-year timeframe.


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

Given the importance of the crop-rotation scheme for further choices within an LCA, it
is of major importance that the crop-rotation scheme being used to cultivate the
products in question already be indicated in the goal definition.

4.2.5 Classification and Characterisation

LCAs current method for the characterisation of toxic substances does not allow for
environmental transport and degradation of these substances, but for various
agricultural pesticides, these processes may be highly influential on the degree to
which the toxic potential of these substances leads to potential environmental
impacts. Wegener Sleeswijk et al. (1996) derived new equivalency factors,
incorporating intermedia transport and degradation, for the most commonly used
agricultural pesticides for the toxicity themes of CMLs LCA method. These equivalency
factors were calculated with the aid of the USES (Uniform System for the Evaluation of
Substances) model (RIVM, VRO, WVC, 1994). However, the new equivalency factors
cannot be compared with the factors in the LCA Guide, and the scores calculated for
pesticides using these factors can only be listed separately.
The Institute for Environmental Research and Education (IERE) has derived a list of
Impact Categories for agricultural product LCAs:
Climate Change
Stratospheric Ozone Depletion
Photochemical Smog
Airborne Toxicity
Waterborne Toxicity
Water Resource Depletion
Mineral Resource Depletion
Land Use/Biodiversity
Soil Conservation
Hormone Use
Antibiotic Use
Gene Modified Organisms
Of these, Land Use/Biodiversity, Soil Conservation, Hormone Use, Antibiotic Use, and
Gene Modified Organisms are directly applicable to agricultural systems. But it is
difficult to see how these impact categories can be applied to non-agricultural systems
to achieve a fair comparison of non-food crop products used in construction.

4.2.6 Sustainability indicators

Sustainability indicators may provide a suitable alternative to the development of
specific impact categories for agricultural issues.


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

Defra has developed a suite of sustainability indicators (Defra Sustainable
development indicators in your pocket 2006 ), with the following relating
directly to agricultural systems:
22. Agricultural sector fertiliser input, farmland bird population, and ammonia
and methane emissions.
23. Farming and environmental stewardship land area covered by
environmental schemes.
24. Land use area covered by agriculture, woodland, water or river, urban.
The Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops have also proposed
sustainability criteria for non-food crops (Defra and DTI, 2004). The environmental
criteria include: land pollution; soil, and biodiversity. Unfortunately, the report does
not set out how these criteria are to be measured.
The Forestry Commission has generated a set of sustainability indicators for forestry
( ). These include factors relating to:

Land use


Soil condition

Carbon cycle.

4.2.7 End of Life

Bio-based construction materials have the potential to be reused and recycled into a
variety of building and non-building components. For example, sheeps wool
insulation can be reprocessed back into insulation very straight forwardly or it can be
reprocessed into fibre for use in clothing or packaging. In addition bio-based building
materials can act as a feedstock of non-fossil energy that can be utilised through
renewable energy processes such as anaerobic digestion at the end of the materials
useful lives.
The biggest challenge to effective end of life utilisation is the low geographic
distribution of non-timber bio-based building materials which would be lessened with a
greater uptake in the use of these materials. Bio-based building materials can also
provide outlets for waste streams from many other industries generating bio-based
materials including the textiles and clothing sectors.
4.2.8 Summary
Applying LCA to agricultural systems can provide a lot of useful information on the
environmental performance of these materials and guide the development of products


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

that understand the consequences associated with them and how to make the best
use of their properties. Agricultural LCAs require attention to the following issues:

Correct definition of the studys functional unit.

Appropriate setting of study boundaries and choice of allocation method, which is
particularly important for carbon sequestration.
Assessment of machinery and infrastructure impacts
An understanding of what environmental impacts are occurring (particularly for the
use of pesticides and fertilisers) and whether where they are occurring contributes
to environmental impacts.
Consideration of all relevant environmental impacts including aspects such as land
use, landscape, soil quality and biodiversity.
Calculation of carbon sequestration and consequences of end-of-life for whole life
carbon balance and climate change impact.
Assessment of service life and end-of-life scenarios (re-use, recycling, disposal
(incineration with or without energy recovery, landfill)).

5 Conclusions
There are many factors to consider when assessing the sustainability of biomaterials
any of which could present limiting factors for the successful uptake of construction
products using these materials.
The assessment of their environmental impact presents some complex issues to
address it is crucial that they are assessed in a manner compatible with the
assessment methods applied to alternative materials that are used to perform the
same function.

6 References
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Land Use based on the Hemeroby Concept. 7(6), 339-348.
Cowell, S and Clift, R. 1997. Impact assessment for LCAs involving agricultural
production. Int. J. LCA 2(2), 99-103.
Cowell, S. 1998. Environmental life cycle assessment of agricultural systems:
integration into decision-making. PhD thesis. Centre for Environmental Strategy,
University of Surrey, Guildford, UK.
Defra and DTI. 2004. A strategy for non-food crops and uses. Creating value from renewable materials.


Sustainability of Biomaterials in Construction

Gallagher, E (Chair). 2008. The Gallagher Review of the indirect effects of biofuels production. Renewable
Fuels Agency.

Mattsson, B; Cederberg, C, and Blix, L. 2000. Agricultural land use in life cycle
assessment (LCA): case studies of three vegetable oil crops. J. Cleaner Production, 8,
Mil i Canals, L. 2003. Contributions to LCA methodology for agricultural systems.
Site-dependency and soil degradation impact assessment. University of Barcelona
PhD thesis.
Wegener Sleeswijk, A; Meeusen-van Onna, MJG; van Zeijts, H; Kleijn, R; Leneman, H;
Reus, JAWA, and Sengers, HHWJM. 1996. Application of LCA to agricultural products. 1.
Core methodological issues; 2. Supplement to the LCA Guide; 3. Methodological
background. Leiden, Centre of Environmental Science Leiden University (CML), Centre
of Agriculture and Environment (CML), Agricultural-Economic Institute (LEI-DLO), ISBN
90-5191-104-1. CML Report 130.