Bio-based (carbon) content measurement

Definition of bio-based content measurement:

Bio-based content measurement is the measurement of the percentage of bio-based (carbon) content in a product compared to the total sum of bio-based and petroleum-based (carbon) content in that same product.

What is bio-based (carbon) content measurement?

Biomass is becoming an increasingly common feedstock in a variety of applications – from industrial chemicals to construction materials. But, sometimes, it is combined with other, non-biomass, feedstocks for reasons of cost or efficiency. This means it is necessary to calculate the proportion of a material that is derived from biomass (bio-based) content.

How does measuring bio-based content work?

There are two main scientific protocols for measuring the bio-based content of materials. These protocols use radiocarbon or elemental analysis to determine the proportion of bio-based carbon present in a given material. This is achieved by using the presence of carbon isotopes to determine how recently the carbon was formed (over 20,000 years old is considered “fossil carbon”). For other elements, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, which do not contain these “marker isotopes”, other contextual information is used to determine whether they come from biomass sources.

In the US, the main certification system is called ASTM D6866. This is required for products participating in the US Department of Agriculture’s voluntary labeling initiative, the BioPreferred® Program for “certified bio-based” labeling. This measure expresses bio-based organic carbon content as a percentage of the total amount of organic carbon in a sample.

The EU, meanwhile, offers two main certification standards, each of which measures bio-based materials slightly differently. The EN 16575 standard only calculates the bio-based carbon content of materials, while the EN 16785-1 standard also measures the total bio-based content of a material, including bio-based hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, as well as carbon.

The below table explains what is measured by the different standards.


Parameter measured

ASTM D6866 (US)

Bio-based carbon content

EN 16575 (EU)

Bio-based carbon content

EN 16785-1 (EU)

Bio-based content (C, H, N, O)

Note: none of these standards measures a material’s biodegradability.

Read more about bio-based certifications here.

What are the benefits of bio-based certifications?

Providing reliable certification for the bio-based (carbon) content of materials enables businesses and consumers to make more informed decisions when it comes to the sustainable sourcing of materials. This has the potential to encourage producers to consider using more bio-based materials or increasing the bio-based content of their existing products. Find out more about the benefits of bio-based materials here.

What are the challenges of bio-based certifications?

Given that the main bio-based (carbon) content measuring schemes are voluntary, it can be difficult to establish consistent measurements across industries. Businesses and consumers should also not rely solely on bio-based (carbon) content to make decisions on the sustainability of materials. Instead, they should also consider the entire lifecycle of the biomass used. For instance, measures such as ASTM D6866 do not convey information on the sources of biomass: was it sustainably produced? Did it come from residual biomass sources (for example, wood chips, corn husks, or beet pulp)? Or were the plants used grown specifically for the purpose of creating biomass, taking up valuable land that could otherwise have been used for food production? More contextual information is required to make decisions on the sustainability of bio-based materials.

What is the future of bio-based (carbon) content measurement and biomass?

The EU predicts steady growth in the use of bio-based materials throughout industries, so it will become increasingly vital to provide accurate ways to measure the bio-based content of materials.