Driving the Biobased Economy

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program is dramatically expanding the market penetration of biobased products.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program was launched 17 years ago to promote biobased products derived from renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials. 

Since then, the BioPreferred program’s two-pronged approach — requirements for U.S. federal agencies to purchase biobased products and voluntary labeling for biobased consumer products — has achieved remarkable results (see sidebar next page).

But how, you might wonder, does one determine the biobased content of a material or product? That’s where ASTM International and its affiliate, the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), come in. 

Here is a closer look at how the program is evolving, the foundational role one particular standard plays in the burgeoning biobased economy, and how SEI helps both USDA and program participants navigate the road to a more sustainable future.

A Fast-Growing Program

The BioPreferred program was established by the U.S. Farm Security and Rural Reinvestment Act of 2002 (the Farm Bill), with expansions in 2008 and 2014 that built on its success.

Last year was an eventful one for the BioPreferred program. The program grew to 109 categories encompassing 14,000 products. Today, more than 3,000 consumer products now feature the Biobased Product label.

In addition, for the first time, 11 “intermediates” were added to the list of biobased product categories designated for U.S. federal purchasing:

  • Binders (cohesive agents);
  • Chemicals;
  • Cleaner components;
  • Foams, fibers, and fabrics;
  • Lubricant components;
  • Paint and coating components;
  • Personal care product components;
  • Plastic resins;
  • Oils, fats, and waxes;
  • Rubber materials; and
  • Textile processing materials.

These intermediates are not typically purchased in their raw form by federal agencies. However, including them as product categories provides a way to identify and integrate a wider array of finished products made from such materials into the federal preferred procurement program. 

READ MORE: Certifying Biobased Products

Kate Lewis, BioPreferred program analyst, explains, “An intermediate is not a finished good. It is a product that is made upstream in the supply chain and later gets remanufactured into a finished biobased product. The main reason we implemented this revision is that it provides a pathway for us to very quickly add additional categories of finished products that the program is going to identify.”

The USDA used data gathered on the 11 intermediates to identify categories of finished products that incorporate those materials. This work resulted in the initiation of a new rulemaking process in September 2018 that proposes adding 30 additional finished product categories for preferred federal purchasing. The categories range widely: concrete curing agents, durable dinnerware, soil amendments, transmission fluids, and more.

In that rulemaking process, Lewis says, “We did get feedback, and we’ll analyze those comments and address them in the final published regulation that will come out in 2019, basically codifying these program changes.”

Notably, many of the 30 proposed categories for federal purchasing include products that are already part of the voluntary labeling aspect of the program. Lewis points out that this new regulation, once finalized, will help blend these two elements of the BioPreferred program. “It represents an important step toward merging the two initiatives of the program, with an eye towards ultimately making sure that all products certified through the BioPreferred program qualify for preferred federal procurement,” she says.

Highly Engaged Participants

Thousands of companies have participated in the BioPreferred program. Some have been involved for years while others are just getting started. Regardless of tenure, however, there appears to be a strong consensus among participants regarding its benefits both to individual bottom lines and to the overall push toward a more sustainable economy.

Take Cortec, for example. The St. Paul, Minnesota-based company specializes in corrosion control, helping with everything from concrete infrastructure to preserving equipment during storage and shipping.  They have participated in the Biopreffered program for over a decade using soy- and corn-based materials to make products with biobased content ranging from 55 to 90 percent. 

More than 30 Cortec products sport the USDA Certified Biobased Product label, allowing consumers to quickly know the percentage of biobased content.

Ming Shen is director of innovation and new technologies for Cortec. “The USDA Certified BioBased Product provides an authoritative indication of Cortec’s environmental stewardship,” Shen says. She also notes that, thanks to the company’s strong focus on green chemistry, “Everybody on the R&D team tries to develop products that meet the requirements for the biobased label, if feasible.” 

Moving from corrosion prevention to preventing the transmission of germs, we find GOJO Industries, Inc. Founded as a manufacturer of heavy-duty hand cleaners in the years after World War II, the company — headquartered in Akron, Ohio, with operations in Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Mexico, and the United Kingdom — went on to develop PURELL hand sanitizer in 1988. GOJO began participating in the BioPreferred program in 2011 when handwash and hand sanitizer categories were added.

“The BioPreferred program for us is about doing the right thing for people, the planet, and business,” says GOJO’s Christopher Havanas, regulatory affairs scientist. “We recognize the critical role of business in creating a healthy future and put great effort into understanding and learning from others about the social, environmental, and economic impacts our business has on society and the environment. Biobased ingredients tend to have a smaller energy footprint than their synthetic counterparts, which helps GOJO reduce its upstream impacts.”

One of the company’s goals for 2020 is to double global sales of products with third-party certifications, like BioPreferred. According to Havanas, as of December 2018, more than 100 GOJO and PURELL products qualified for the Biobased product label.

Another example is sneakers. You might not think of sneakers as biobased products, but Reebok is working to change that with its Cotton & Corn program. The company, part of international shoe and sportswear giant Adidas AG, uses the tagline “Made with things that grow” for a unique sneaker that features a 100 percent cotton upper and a biobased sole derived from corn.

“Being the first footwear brand and product to participate in and achieve BioPreferred status is an incredible honor,” says Michael Andrews, Reebok’s director of advanced development and a member of ASTM International’s plastics committee (D20). “To start, we sourced only upper materials that are cellulosic, such as cotton, hemp, etc. Then we set about investigating plastic materials that had suitable physical properties for footwear and also had a high biocarbon content. Once we identified these materials, we made shoes and tested them against the relevant ASTM standard. At the same time, we subjected the shoes to our internal benchtop and human wear tests.”

Andrews’ comment raises an important question. Just what is the “relevant ASTM standard” that Cortec, GOJO, Reebok, and the thousands of other participants in the BioPreferred program use to verify their products’ biobased content?

A Respected Standard

Expanding markets for products that use organic, carbon-based ingredients (for example, algae, bamboo, soy, flax) instead of those derived from petroleum is an excellent step toward a more sustainable economy. But how is the biobased content of products like rust preventative, hand sanitizer, or sneakers actually tested and measured?

The answer is the single, crucially important ASTM International standardized test method for determining biobased content of solid, liquid, and gaseous samples using radiocarbon analysis (D6866). This is maintained by the organization’s subcommittee on environmentally degradable plastics and biobased products (D20.96), which developed the standard.

“ASTM D6866 is the cornerstone of BioPreferred,” says Pat Gleason, president of SEI, an affiliate of ASTM International. SEI administers the certification process on behalf of USDA, working with manufacturers who want to participate in the BioPreferred program and with the laboratories that do the actual testing (Beta Analytic and the University of Georgia Center for Applied Isotope Studies, both of which are accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories).

“We help USDA in terms of providing the manufacturer with an agreement stating that they will follow the rules of the USDA BioPreferred program, that they will submit a product to a designated testing laboratory that knows D6866, and that they will report their results as the test report identifies,” Gleason explains.

Companies participating are certainly aware of the standard’s importance. “ASTM D6866 plays an enormous role,” says Reebok’s Michael Andrews. “As the team leader for cotton and corn, it’s part of my role to educate the development teams to design to the standard.”

Chris Havanas of GOJO echoes this sentiment. “Our formulators are constantly searching for and sampling new biobased materials that will drive future innovation and help GOJO meet or exceed the biobased content requirements found in key standards such as D6866.”

The importance of the test method was underscored last November, when the plastics committee recognized USDA’s Kate Lewis and Darden Hood of Beta Analytic with its William N. Findley Award for their work in helping to develop the standard. 

In summary, the BioPreferred program continues to leverage the U.S. government’s massive purchasing power to increase demand for biobased products. Participating companies are meeting that demand with an ever-growing array of sustainable options. And a test method ensures the legitimacy of biobased content calculations. 

The growth of the BioPreferred program can be traced to the synergy and close working relationships among the teams at USDA, ASTM International, and SEI. All signs point to further expansion of the biobased economy as a result of these efforts.

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

U.N. Sustainable Goals Supported:

SDG 9 SDG 12  
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