The Emerging Bioeconomy

An array of standards for biobased products, biodegradability, and biotechnology are transforming industries.
Benjamin Schneider

The emerging “bioeconomy” reflects the dramatic increase in companies using renewable resources to develop new products and processes. The societal benefits of the bioeconomy are compelling: expanded energy availability, better food security, mitigation of climate change, and more.

Many industries are embracing scientific breakthroughs that lead to more sustainable and environmentally friendly approaches. This trend is driven not only by their own interests and values but also by growing demands from regulatory bodies and consumers.

A wide range of advancements are driving the bioeconomy: 

  • Radiocarbon analysis can now calculate the amount of biobased material in a product.
  • Plastics are increasingly manufactured with their end-use biodegradability in mind.
  • Enzymes made of engineered microorganisms are helping with everything from clothing stain removal to ethanol fuel.
  • And much more.

Many industry practices have yet to be standardized, which is why ASTM International committees are stepping up to the plate.

Towards a Biobased Economy

Technically speaking, a biobased economy is nothing new — natural resources have always been an essential part of any economy. And even today, the definition of “bioeconomy,” first coined at a genomics seminar in 1997, is still in flux. The term is generally used as a catch-all description of all businesses that use biology-based inputs or processes to create new products or improve existing ones. Industries such as healthcare, energy, agriculture, and plastics are leading the way.

With such broad parameters, it is difficult to nail down just how big the bioeconomy is. A European Commission Joint Research Centre report in 2014 estimated the bioeconomy in the EU alone at 2.4 billion euros. Meanwhile, a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested that biobased products contributed $369 billion to that country’s economy in 2013.

Digging deeper, revenues from genetically modified crops in the U.S. alone were over $75 billion in 2010, while the industrial biotechnology sector — including chemicals, fuels, materials, and more — was $100 billion.

Numbers aside, it is clear that consumers and regulators worldwide are interested in more sustainabie products and services, encouraging more and more businesses and industries to join the bioeconomy. 

In turn, those same industries are looking for standards to help them navigate this new terrain. They are seeking new technical standards, best practices, a shared vocabulary, and much more. 

Not surprisingly, they are working through a number of ASTM International committees to advance these efforts.

Biobased Materials and Biodegradability

The cellular and biomolecular techniques that create biobased materials vary but have an overarching common goal. Joseph McAuliffe, Ph.D., senior principle scientist for DuPont Industrial Biosciences, says, “It puts industry on a sustainable footing to create biomass at the rate it’s being used.”

The subcommittee on environmentally degradable plastics and biobased products (D20.96) is crucial in this regard.

Perhaps most importantly, the group has created test methods for determining the biobased content of solid, liquid, and gaseous samples using radiocarbon analysis (D6866). This standard has helped stakeholders worldwide in calculating carbon, and thus biobased, content.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites this standard for certification through its BioPreferred program, which aims to help develop and expand the biobased product market. The BioPreferred program includes mandatory purchasing requirements for U.S. federal agencies and contractors as well as voluntary product certification and labeling. (The labeling program is administered by the Safety Equipment Institute, an affiliate of ASTM International. For more information, go to

Biodegradability is a related area in which standards are also needed. Stakeholders are looking to make products more biodegradable and to come to a consensus on what “biodegradable” means for various industries.

How does a company develop a product that can be recycled or degrade naturally so that it poses little or no environmental hazard, and at the same time meet standards and regulations from governments increasingly interested in sustainability?

Answering this question requires defining the various types of biodegradability. D20.96 standards help test for and specify biodegradability for plastics.

Linda Amaral-Zettler, Ph.D., is the subcommittee’s secretary and a senior scientist in the Marine Microbiology and Biogeochemistry Department at NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Utrecht University, with affiliated apointments at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and Brown University. She is conducting research on microplastics and how they degrade in the oceans. Her professional work ties into her volunteer work at ASTM International, where she is helping update longstanding standards for plastics that have come under scrutiny due to advances in technology and the surge in consumer demand for more environmentally friendly products.

The standards that we’re interested in at this point have been used in the past, but we’re working on them being reissued,” Amaral-Zettler says. “They were originally done at a time where we had a more blunt approach to things like bioplastics — things particularly well-suited to biodegradation in the marine environment.” Amaral-Zettler says the complexity of the environment has taken center stage and that standards will be most helpful by determining a product’s inherent biodegradability.

Now, Amaral-Zettler explains, there is a need to consider the lifecycle of a product beyond its end point with consumers. She is advocating for more research to be done on biodegradability in a lab environment, arguing that attempts to test in natural environments, while well-intentioned, simply have too many complicating factors to provide clear, definitive guidance.

Biodegradability and disposal standards are needed in other areas, too. The committee on waste management (D34) is developing standards related to the biodegradation and disposal of non-plastic materials in wastewater, landfills, compost, and the marine environment. 

“The bioeconomy drives changes in technology and materials. Knowing the long-term environmental impacts of these new materials is critical,” says Teresa Clark, D34 vice chair and vice president of product development and sustainability at ENSO Plastics. “We need to understand how to drive additional value from these materials once they enter the waste stream.”

In both committees (D20 and D34), active participation is crucial.

ASTM International’s process is collaborative, and members agree that input from everyone is essential. Kelvin Okamoto, Ph.D., president of Green Bottom Line and chairman of D20.96, says feedback from all stakeholders strengthens the standards being created and notes that committees are always looking for more members to join and be involved.

“Because ASTM has international membership and gets feedback from everybody around the world, I think it’s the one place in the world where we can get input from all the players: NGOs, companies, governments,” Okamoto says. “When we come up with a standard, we know we came up with an agreement from all of those entities.”

Industrial Biotechnology

The bioeconomy is extending far beyond traditional manufacturing, making the work of commitees such as industrial biotechnology (E62) more important each day.

McAuliffe says that the committee is working toward a proposed standard classification for industrial microorganisms based on their genotype (DNA sequence) and has been surveying stakeholders about the usefulness of a standard.

“We want to be sure that what we do has a positive impact before we move forward,” he says. A classification system could provide agreement on how to group industrial organisms.

Other standards the committee will consider developing include guidance for startup companies and navigating the complex regulatory environment for the industry.

Sustainable Products and Processes

Sustainable, environmentally friendly products and practices are having a significant impact on the bioeconomy. To support their continued growth, the committee on sustainability (E60) is working in a number of areas.

“This committee is going to have a lot of standards that relate to the bioeconomy,” says Clark. “[But] before you start building standards that products can be built upon, you need to have base ways for people to communicate with one another.”

Here are some examples of their standards:

  • Practices, guides, and specifications for buildings and construction help developers, building owners, and others conserve physical and financial resources. This includes  plans ranging from walkabie neighborhoods to cleaning commercial buildings and everything in between.
  • Hospitality standards help professionals choose environmentally sustainable components of conferences and events: exhibits, transportation, onsite offices, and more.
  • Practices for water use and conservation help municipalities determine strategies for water stewardship.
  • Standards provide guidance on aspects of sustainable manufacturing.

Some E60 standards are very specific, such as a guide for making sustainability-related chemical selection decisions in the life cycle of products (E3027). The standard provides a shared nomenclature for both the technology and biologics sides of the equation, from the collection of raw materials through to the end products.

While the committee has come a long way, much work remains to be done.

For example, Clark notes, “Quite often, the processes we’ve developed in manufacturing, the biological methods in particular, are very new. We haven’t gone in and refined those processes or how to measure their sustainability yet. That’s what we’re working on now.”

In addition, the sustainability committee also serves as a place where the terminology of the field can be discussed and agreed upon. One draft standard (WK55825) supports defining, selecting, and identifying key attributes in the bioeconomy. in other words, it helps people determine whether something is sustainable or not. Water consumption, energy use, and other key performance indicators are among the issues that need to be considered.

Collaboration Is Key

“The scope of the bioeconomy and the standards that will guide it is large. Due to the sheer volume of the standards being developed, there is certainly some overlap between some of them,” Clark says. 

That’s an essential part of the process of developing a comprehensive suite of standards that provides the guidance that leaders in the bioeconomy need.

“That’s the point of standards; to find and to even close those loopholes so the standards are united,” Clark says.


Benjamin Schneider is a writer and communications professional in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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