Standardization News

Certifying Biobased Products

An updated standard and a renewed contract for a related certification program are good news for environmentally conscious manufacturers and consumers.
Jack Maxwell

In May, ASTM members updated a test method to determine the biocontent of products made from renewable resources. Then in August, ASTM International’s new subsidiary, the Safety Equipment Institute, was awarded a five-year contract to manage a certification and labeling program based on that test method.

“This program empowers everyone — from everyday consumers to large customers like the U.S. government — to make environmentally conscious purchases, while also helping manufacturers meet the growing demand for those products,” said Pat Gleason, president of SEI and vice president of certification services for ASTM International.

Back in 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the BioPreferred certification program to encourage widespread development, purchase, and use of biobased products, which are derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry products. The goal of certifying products as biobased was to reduce reliance on petroleum, increase the use of renewable agricultural resources, and help reduce adverse impacts on health and the environment.

Shortly thereafter, ASTM’s committee on plastics (D20) developed a test method (D6866) to support this program. The test method uses radiocarbon analysis to determine the percentage of biobased carbon found in a wide array of products: personal care, fertilizers, lubricants, industrial cleaners, and much more.

Then in 2011, ASTM won the contract to provide management and technical support to the BioPreferred program, handling data processing and coordinating product testing with various independent laboratories. 

On August 22, 2016, with a track record of thousands of products certified, the contract was renewed for five more years. It will be managed by SEI, which has a decades-long record of success in administering certification programs based on ASTM and other organizations’ standards.

“We’re thrilled to continue administering this program, which is yet another example of ASTM’s growing presence in the certification space," Gleason said.

The Two Elements of the USDA Program

Success stories from USDA’s BioPreferred program abound.

Biosynthetic Technologies makes biobased synthetic oils. The Irvine, California, company provides base oil derived from soybean and other vegetable oils to makers of automotive lubricants and other customers.

Greg Blake, Biosynthetic's senior vice president of public and government relations, said, “Our participation with the BioPreferred program has helped significantly in creating awareness around this groundbreaking new technology. It has also provided opportunities to demonstrate the excellent performance attributes of our products with multiple government fleets.”

Indeed, one of the two primary elements of the program focuses on U.S. government purchasing of biobased products, which is required for federal agencies and their contractors. This part of the program has grown dramatically — from just six product categories to nearly 100.

Manufacturers that participate in this part of the program claim that their products meet the USDA-set requirements for biobased content, which vary by product category and are published online.

The second major part of the USDA program is for manufacturers who want to affix an actual label or sticker to their products. To do that, a company must have those products tested and certified through an independent laboratory that can test according to ASTM 6866.

This certification and labeling is particularly beneficial for companies that want to appeal to environmentally conscious customers beyond U.S. agencies, such as everyday consumers. So far, nearly 3,000 products have been certified, and there is potential for many more.

For example, Kate Lewis, an analyst who works at the USDA’s BioPreferred program, says, “Much opportunity remains for the manufacturers of the more than 12,000 noncertified biobased products listed in USDA’s database to be tested using D6866.”

Keeping the Test Method Current

As the linchpin of the biobased content certification process, it’s essential that D6866’s technical foundation be as robust, precise, and up-to-date as possible. Alyson Fick is the staff manager of ASTM’s committee on plastics, which includes the subcommittee on environmentally degradable plastics and biobased products (D20.96), the group that developed the test method.

Fick notes that ASTM members were very enthusiastic about updating the standard in 2012 and in 2016. The group constantly looks for better ways to assess new and complex products.

In addition, the group must account for unique developments that happen over time, such as changes in the Earth’s atmosphere due to the 2,000 nuclear tests that took place from 1945 until the nuclear-test ban treaty of 1996.

These tests injected carbon-14 (also known as 14C) into the atmosphere, resulting in the “bomb carbon” effect.

Atmospheric 14C has been declining since the 1950s and '60s, due to the uptake of 14C from things like plants. A plant in 1965 might have registered about 190 pMC (percent modern carbon) at that time, but due to the drop in nuclear testing, that number could have dropped to about 102 pMC in 2015.

This matters because carbon is the element of a biobased product that is measured — using advanced accelerator mass spectrometry, isotope ratio mass spectrometry, and laser scintillation counter test techniques — to determine just how much “bio” it contains.

Applying the correct adjustment factor for the bomb carbon effect — part of D6866 — is important in determining a product’s truest percentage of biobased content.

In 2012, the correction factor was 105 pMC. This year’s revision to the standard reflects the fact that the correction factor has further dropped to 101.5. Experts think it will continue to drop by .5 per year until 2019, when the last vestiges of bomb carbon will have been absorbed into the biosphere; at that time the only carbon measured in a biobased product will truly be biobased.

Accounting for the changes in atmospheric 14C are important because a biobased product derived from old-growth forests will measure higher in pMC than one made from “younger” trees. Meanwhile, biobased products derived from marine and aquatic sources are depleted in 14C relative to the atmosphere due to excess limestone carbonate in ocean waters.

“Manufacturers are faced with a real challenge when they get a value of 97 percent biobased carbon for something that is truly 100 percent — for example, nothing but pressed sugar cane waste,” says Darden Hood, president of Beta Analytic, a firm in the biobased testing industry. “By updating the correction factor, a truer reflection of biobased content is achieved. Manufacturers could then have a higher value in the BioPreferred catalog. If they are very close to the minimum requirement for the USDA BioPreferred program, they have a better chance of passing, and if they are truly 100 percent biobased, they have a better chance of that being the result with the updated correction factor.”

Regarding these updates, Blake says, “We favor any improvements that make testing more accurate and data more reliable for our market and channel partners. From a market-facing perspective, BioPreferred certification adds another expert voice verifying the attributes of our renewable products.”

Clear and Positive Impacts

The USDA’s analysis estimates that “the use of biobased products is currently displacing about 300 million gallons of petroleum per year” — the equivalent of removing 200,000 cars from the road.  Reducing the use of chemical feedstocks derived from crude oil refineries and replacing them with feedstocks derived from biorefineries remains a key goal.

The economic impact of the biobased product industry is also giving an economic boost to countries such as the United States. Given that the U.S. government spends around $445 billion annually on goods and services, steering even a modest amount of business to companies that make biobased products has significant economic impact. According to a June 2015 study published by USDA, the biobased products industry contributed 4 million jobs to the U.S. economy in 2013.

According to Gleason, SEI will continue to look for opportunities to provide certification services — both in the U.S. and abroad — that help improve the environment while also supporting industry.

Jack Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Westmont, New Jersey.


Issue Month: 
Issue Year: