Biobased = sustainable ?

Biobased = sustainable?

(This blog is a translation of a blog in Dutch, published on the biobased platform website: go here for the Dutch version: part 1 and 2) ( May 2015)

The question asked was : is Biobased equal to sustainability? The short answer is: No. A longer answer could conclude: “but it can be”. Here is the longer version. It requires to know what we mean by biobased and what we mean by sustainability.


What is a Biobased material /resource/product? A first reaction is often: a natural product. But thats very broad, and in fact everything is a natural product… It could be limited to how a Dutch comedian (Freek de Jonge) described nature : Nature is where there is no network… Its closer, but still not focused enough for our definition. Others state: materials with biomass as resource base. Usually that will do in a discussion, but literally its not sufficient , since few realize that fossil fuels are biomass based. Which is the kind of biomass the use of which we want to avoid in the first place… Since it is stored CO2 ( its natural CCS ) , making the atmosphere possible we now can live in. (current CCS is copying what already has been done for us… )

Another saying is that biobased is vegetable/plant based. But then what about animal living sources ?. Algae for instance, or bone glue. A wikipedia lemma describes it precisely like that : [ biobased materials are] “ substances derived from living (or once-living) organisms.”

But then, millions of years of accumulated layers of lime-skeletons , the basis of fossils, are included…

There are of course more detailed descriptions: [biobased materials] “ rely on biological processes and, as with natural ecosystems, use natural inputs, expend minimum amounts of energy and do not produce waste as all materials discarded by one process are inputs for another process and are reused in the ecosystem (Fischler, 2010) .

The tone and emotion sounds right, however, what are natural inputs? And how much is “minimum amounts of energy”? Another way of defining biobased is by the term previously used: being renewable resources. Fraanje defined that in 1998: { renewable resources] “are biogenic resources characterized by a relatively short regeneration time (1-100 years) that come available in substantial quantities through cultivation or natural growth” .

In any case this adds a clear criterion: the possible speed of regeneration. But this also has some open ends. Why 100 ? And renewable, mind you, is only renewable when renewed. Otherwise its a loos claim, en nothing different from depleting any other (non-renewable) resource. And does substantial quantities imply that, say, sand is is included, which regenerates real time naturally by erosion from mountains pushed up by tectonics, and for centuries used to make roof tiles and bricks from river collected sand.? In large quantities, but in sufficient quantities? Maybe not, since even sand for concrete seems to have become a scarce resource, already traded illegally. ( see youtube, documentary ‘Sand Wars’ by Denis Delestrac)

Renewable, and currently biobased, therefor has to be seen in relation to volume used for a specific product/function, and the time and space needed to restore the resource balance. If the original stock is restored before end of use of a function in the human society, a balance is possible, and renewing can be a valid claim. And that is what the term biobased represents: resources and materials, that require relative little mass/energy to provide a function , and can be relatively fast regenerated compared to alternatives. And any resource can in principle comply with that , depending function, use, and effort to restore, replenish or regenerate. More detail can specify this, which requires us defining sustainability first.


The term sustainability is strongly eroded, at least in The Netherlands, and has become a container verb for everything people value in life. Anything is called sustainable nowadays. I will save the ridiculous examples for another time, except one: In the building sector its trendy to claim a product can be recycled after life time, and therefor its sustainable. This way recycling it misused to build anything , as long as it can be recycled: But anything can be recycled, and its only consequence is it is pushing the problem of doing so to our children. And do nothing now.

Its in fact the reason itself for scarcity of materials, since we use them now in uncontrolled quantities, so that we will be obliged to recycle them later. Why not use recycled materials now, today? This is still only an example on the physical part of the term sustainability, currently it has many social, health and comfort requirements incorporated.

Nowadays I prefer to use the term ‘maintainable’ ( volhoudbaar in Dutch) : can the use be maintained over time? Back to the roots of the seventies, when we focused on environmental impact , and environmental sound construction. More systemic: resources go through a cycle in a speed and volume, of which the cycle can recover. There are 4 elements involved to close a cycle , to characterize a flow: the use of resources that, within humans reach, can be cycled continuously; to be able to mange volume and speed, and for which the energy to keep the cycle going is available in a continuous flow.

To illustrate this take the example of living on a small island , with one tree available. The wood can be used to cook, to build a house or a fishing boat, But only after 40 years there is a new stock in the form of a tree. : the source, volume speed and energy ( labor/food) are obvious in this example. Maintainable is 1 tree every 40 years. Which is also valid on global scale (an island as well), and not only for wood, also for sand, or any other resource. Only using resources that in principle can be managed in cycles by human kind is no longer enough! This is why its needed to explore , even for a biobased resource , can its use become maintainable ?

Biobased and sustainability

Therefor: No, biobased is not sustainable/maintainable, by definition. No material , of any kind, is sustainable or unsustainable. Its the use that determines if there will be a sustainable situation . To speak of Sustainable concrete , as is often heard, is nonsense.

But neither exists sustainable wood. If by the use of wood the amazon forest disappears faster as it regrows, the use of wood is unsustainable: can not be maintained forever. Its the use that decides if its sustainable or unsustainable: the impact compensated over the lifetime of use. Besides. Concrete, which has a significant environmental impact , is often used for applications for which a alternative with lower impact material would be available. Its in fact not about concrete : its about providing a function with the least requirements for regeneration in the system .

Even the impact of iron mining cn be compensated, by restoring the original ore quantity for instance from sea water iron ions, and solar energy (and therefor is renewable…) . Its another moment in the cycle flow of a resource. Its a immense investment of energy of course , thats why you should only use iron where the specific properties of iron are required, and no alternative is available.

Which is a first criterion to establish a maintainable situation, a closing cycles balance: to use materials that require the least time , space and energy to regenerate, within the time of use. (or maybe even to call “ depreciation period”)

Biobased, and more precise I prefer now re-growable (since anything is renewable) , resources that sprout from soil, is a group of resources that in principle have the easiest treatment in a closed cycle approach. They can deliver a lot of functions more effective as non-regrowable . They require lower volumes, and reduced energy input and their use can survive their regrowth. ( more high brow: require the least solar exergy to compensate energy-mass in space time – MAXergy*) . Regrowable resources that are used sustainable when regrown within their time of use.

A simple way for classification of materials is the embodied energy from a product or better : from a function delivered: (the invested energy of harvesting/mining- processing and transporting the resource) . Embodied energy of a house from regrow able materials is up to half that of non regrow-able materials. The same for offices, as Fraanje and others already have calculated many times. In fact a measure and good proxy for potential sustainability /maintainability xxx

Which brings us to the remaining question about the kind of energy involved in the cycle of resources: fossil is out of order ( infinitely long regeneration time) , so, bio-energy? In fact that is a real destructive route: : the energy is faster degraded as can be regrown… But even more important: When biomass first serves as material, the energy fraction remains available after say 50 years of use, the biomass preserves that capacity… In contrast to non regrowable resources!. Maybe this is even a better definition for biobased resources: are resources that can serve as fuel and energy, but are not used as such… (nor the fossils) . And the use can only be sustainable when the time of regeneration is within their time of use, and that they actually are regenerated. Happily this is relative easy with regrowable resources.

If you have enough land….


Fischler 2010/WWF Denmark: acces via:


Fraanje 1998 : Peter J. Fraanje: ‘Renewable Resources for Building Materials’; IVAM Environmental Research; pHD-thesis; University of Amsterdam; Amsterdam, june 18th 1998.


Sand wars Denis Delestrac , and


MAXergy : see the website:

Author: ronald rovers