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Developments and investment in renewable and sustainable energy are widely reported and great progress is being made in terms of bringing new resources to market; yet there seems to be little progression in the construction industry. Many common materials used in construction today are oil based, however there are a number of bio-based materials which have the potential to replace these.

Using bio-based materials in construction will not only help to address the global challenge of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and resources, it can also lead to a healthier climate in houses and offices with a direct impact on public health. For example, there are many health concerns associated with PUR (poly­uret­hane) insulation, yet hemp or flax insulation perform just as well while offering a better living environment.

The development of hemp and flax for use in the construction industry is still in the early stages but has great market potential, particularly in north-west Europe. There are numerous types of materials that can be developed from hemp and flax but these can generally be categorised into four key groups of construction materials: insulation materials; fibre composites; inorganic hemp/flax shive composites and organic hemp/flax shive composites.

Demanding fewer inputs in terms of water, nutrients or pesticides, these two crops can be perfectly embedded and balanced in the local agricultural system also allowing the system to become more sustainable with improved management of resources such as water and nutrients.

As well as offering the ideal growing circum­stances for hemp and flax, some of these European countries also have the historical expertise on the cultivation and processing of crops needed to support the route to market. The industry can also have a very positive effect on more rural economies, which have struggled in recent decades. According to Ernst and Young, hemp and flax production leads to more regional employment per hectare than wheat offering four times as many jobs at production stage and five times as many at the processing stage.

Across the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany, small-scale initiatives are under way but each region is coming up against the same types of challenges, with little progress. In each of these countries efforts have been made to try and establish sustainable supply chains of biomaterials based on hemp and flax. Facing very diverse challenges on technical, logistical, quality and commercial levels many of these initiatives failed leaving not only financial reper­cus­sions but also the impact of a negative experience.

  

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