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It's natural that we should gravitate toward biobased materials. But many of them are energy-intensive and toxic, so how do we judge what's best?

O Ecotextiles is an example of the kind of leadership company that has worked diligently to address environmental impacts at every step of their product's production--including careful attention to responsible sourcing of biobased materials. We discussed Ecotextiles in EBN and had them on our top-10 list of 2008.

It still seems like biobased materials should be better for the environment. Even after the LEED Wood Wars, even after all the stories of pollution and waste from industrial agriculture, it just seems logical that resources we grow as part of a natural cycle are greener than the ones we mine or extract.

This intuitive attraction may explain why various versions of "biobased" and "natural" claims, like the "rapidly renewable" credit in LEED 2009, have had so much staying power, why the building industry is just starting to take a much-needed closer look, and why it's still hard to figure out how to effectively evaluate the impact of these materials in our industry.

I applaud USGBC and its proposed LEED 2012 "sustainable sourcing" credit for trying to tackle this issue and appreciate the challenge USGBC faces in doing so. However, there's still some work to be done. There has been a great discussion on LEEDuser about this, particularly comments by Tom Lent of the Healthy Building Network and Mara Baum of HOK. Baum put it well when she said, "Wouldn't it be great if in 5 or 10 years we had an FSC equivalent for all major raw material industries? However, we still need a usable, justifiable version of LEED between now and then."

Here are some steps I propose for increasing our scrutiny.

First, Admit You Have a Problem

The environmental and health hazards associated with biobased products are myriad and complex, depending on the material. Below are some issues, but even this long list is not exhaustive.

  • Agriculture: intensive land use and deforestation, chemical use, fuel use, nutrient runoff and other pollution concerns, treatment of agricultural workers, etc.
  • Market realities & social justice: competition between food crops and crops used for fuel and products like building materials can disadvantage the already disadvantaged by raising the cost of food.
  • Processing: While 'biobased' materials can include materials like wood that are used almost as-is, many materials require extensive processing which can be quite energy-intensive, toxic, and polluting, and requiring fossil-fuel-based additives and processing aids.
  • Health: While many people assume that the VOCs from 'natural' materials don't present the same kind of health hazard as industrial VOCs, there's no definitive answer. Formaldehyde, which so much good and justifiable effort has been made to minimize, is common and naturally occurring. Also products made with biobased feedstocks are not necessarily any less hazardous than those made with fossil fuel feedstocks--it depends on what else is in them.
  • Percentages: Is 8% soy polyol worth getting excited about? At what percentage biobased content should we start paying attention?
  • Durability and end of life: In some cases biobased materials are compostable, but often not. Biobased plastics can complicate the recycling stream.
  • Emissions and more: There's a lively debate whether wool is good or bad for the environment. There's no doubt it's renewable, and can be produced in ways that appear low-impact, but whether methane emissions from sheep counteracts all the other good stuff is an open question.

Second, Set a Strong Goal, but Use the Stepping Stones We Have

Improving practices and figuring out how to assess and document more sustainable practices is going to take a while. There is no ready equivalent to FSC for most biobased materials aside from wood.

Certification to organic standards or other sustainable agriculture standards can provide guidance in some cases. There are any number of international certifications looking at different aspects of cotton production, including social concerns, and that's just scratching the surface. While not perfect, many of these ensure practices that are far preferable to standard agricultural practice and represent an existing raw material supply that can respond to a growing market generated by LEED. Leading manufacturers have already, appropriately, turned to these sources in seeking out responsible sourcing for biobased materials.

It seems only prudent to capitalize on the work that's been done while still providing direction for further improvement. This touches on the broader issue of the role of product (and manufacturing or harvest process) certifications in LEED around which there continues to be extensive debate. Biobased materials is yet another area where it behooves us to carefully assess the relevant concerns and possible mechanisms to address them, and then take great care in selecting approaches to fill in the gaps.

Deeper Research Is Coming

BuildingGreen and Healthy Building Network are collaborating on deeper research of these questions, so look for deeper treatment in an upcoming EBN feature article and in Pharos--digging into the issues for different materials and different product categories, what certifications and other measures exist now to help us evaluate 'sustainable sourcing' and other aspects of biomaterials, and what manufacturers are taking leaps beyond the norm in addressing these issues.

We welcome comments and insight on manufacturers you think are going above and beyond, issues you think are all too easily overlooked, or frameworks and certifications that address these issues.

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1 This piece raises the right posted by Jason Grant on 03/22/2012 at 03:57 pm

This piece raises the right questions with respect to bio-based materials. It is essential that LEED 2012 gets the right "answers" from a policy and market transformation standpoint -- and, for reasons that Lent, Baum and others have raised, it isn't there yet.

So - what will happen?

Will USGBC make the needed improvements -- which probably will require a 4th draft and comment period -- or will they ballot something that is basically half-baked?

2 Industrial hemp based posted by Shayne on 04/02/2012 at 12:45 am

Industrial hemp based bio-materials are highly sustainable, not only is hemp a duel-crop, but it can be grown in rotation with other food crops, it also produces 4-5 times the amount of biomass per acre compared with other fibre crops. Hemp fibre is currently primarily a waste material in Canada, although processing facilities are finally starting to get established, now the US just needs to lift the ban.

3 Don't throw that away! posted by Bruce King on 01/30/2013 at 02:45 pm

There is a huge number of biobased building products in development, or already in the market (e.g., Agriboard, Durisol) or already come and gone.  There were already hundreds of biobased products even 20 years ago, and almost all then, as now, were based on by-products.  That is, few if any crops were or are grown to provide building material -- the feedstock is typically the fibers and oils that someone else (usually a farmer) didn't want.  The authors concerns are all more than valid, but in general it looks like there is enormous opportunity to divert agricultural waste into effective, healthy insulating and structural products.  (My current favorite is Hemcrete.)  The Ecological Building Network (EBNet) launched an effort to craft a governing standard two years ago (ASTM WK30419 - New Guide for the Use of Agricultural Fiber in Construction), but the effort has languished for lack of funding support.

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