Round-up of non-food crop activity in the UK: construction materials

Posted in: feedstocks

This article aims to summarise which non-food crops are currently being grown in the UK to serve as construction materials, with a particular focus on hemp, Miscanthus and flax.

In a previous article, we looked at non-food crops currently being grown in the UK for the production of goods destined for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. We discussed market values and trends, and had a closer look at oilseed crops and herbs, which are two non-food crops of particular interest to these huge industries. In this second article, we will cover non-food crops – and their current impact on the UK economy – for the production of construction materials.

The History of natural building materials is as old as the history of man-made “buildings” itself. From the earliest shelters made from branches to stone houses which still stand strong centuries after being erected, plant-derived, waste and mineral materials have been used all over the world for construction for millennia. The first shelters were often made of forageable and easily moulded materials such as leaves, branches, mud and clay, and were built for the primary purpose of offering humans protection against harsh weather and animals. As humanity evolved and toolmaking improved, wood became a crucial part of the ancient world’s construction industry. Ancient Greek and ancient Chinese civilisations built wooden temples to their Gods, one of them, Nanchen Temple, was built in 782 AD and is still standing today.

One of the most significant advances in building materials has been concrete. Made from mineral products, concrete quite simply refers to a composite material formed as a result of aggregates (e.g. sand, ash, crushed stones…) being mixed with a fluid “cement” which hardens over time. The earliest forms of concrete date back as far as Mayan times and are also a common occurrence in ancient roman sites. The quality of concrete has not stopped improving ever since, and underwent a big boost during the Industrial Revolution. The middle of the 19th century saw the development of reinforced concrete (i.e. a mixture of concrete and steel) which went on the become an instrumental element for the development of high-scale infrastructures such as bridges and motorways. Nowadays, concrete is the most widely used material for construction, surpassing all the other materials (such as wood, steel and plastic) by far. More recently, plastic has also become a very widely used construction material, providing lightweight, flexible and cheap components. However, both concrete and plastic have very high carbon footprints and often lead to a number of health and safety concerns throughout their lifecycles.

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This article was written by Thea Allary, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

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