A Stamp of Approval

USDA’s BioPreferred voluntary labeling program provides consumers with a clear way to distinguish biobased products from those derived from petroleum
By Erin Voegele | March 17, 2011

The BioPreferred program was established by Congress in 2002, with the intent of increasing the quantity of agriculture-based raw materials used to make industrial products. “It was an economic development program,” says Ron Buckhalt, program manager for the USDA’s BioPreferred program. “It wasn’t necessarily an environmental program, but of course it has some environmental parts to it.”

The program has two discrete components, the federal procurement and the new voluntary labeling programs. While the federal procurement aspect requires federal agencies to preferentially purchase biobased products when available, Buckhalt says the voluntary labeling program is designed to grow market demand for certified products while increasing the use of agricultural commodities in industry. “More biorefineries, if you will, will be able to spring up across the countryside to produce more biobased products,” he says. In other words, the voluntary labeling program, which was announced Jan. 19, is designed to increase consumer awareness of biobased products, while also encouraging consumers to purchase and use them.

The USDA estimates that there are 20,000 biobased products currently manufactured in the U.S., supporting more than 100,000 jobs. Under the federal procurement component of the BioPreferred program, more than 5,000 products have already been certified. This means the USDA has verified the biobased content of those products, and has qualified them for federal procurement purposes.

Under the BioPreferred program, biobased products are considered to be those composed wholly or significantly of biological ingredients, whether renewable plant, animal, marine or forestry materials. The new label will indicate that a product has been certified to meet the USDA standards for a prescribed amount of biobased content.

A wide variety of minimum biobased content levels have already been set for certain product categories under the federal procurement portion of the program. For example, disposable containers must contain at least 72 percent biobased content by weight to be certified. Similarly, minimum levels for semidurable films, disposable tableware, and disposable cutlery have been respectively set at 45 percent, 72 percent and 48 percent. As established in the final rule for the BioPreferred labeling program, a product must meet or exceed the minimum biobased content percentage in its given category to use the BioPreferred label. For product categories where biobased minimums have not yet been established, the USDA has set a minimum biobased content level of 25 percent.

According to Buckhalt, applicants to the labeling program are encouraged, and expected, to apply for a label based on the actual biobased content their product contains. For example, if a company that wants to use the label on its plastic cups containing 80 percent biobased content by weight, the 80 percent should be noted on the label, not the minimum 25 percent requirement. The certified percentage will be included on the logo designated for each product. “Do the real numbers,” he says. “Go with what you’ve got.”

To qualify for the program, the biobased content of a product must be tested using ASTM standard D6866. The test method essentially measures the amount of carbon-14, a naturally occurring radioactive carbon isotope found in trace amounts, present in the material. The isotope decays over time, and is commonly used to estimate the age of ancient artifacts. Biobased materials, which are new sources of carbon, contain significantly higher concentrations of carbon-14 than fossil-based carbon sources. The test method can determine the percent of biobased materials found in a product by evaluating how much carbon-14 it contains.

Products that are awarded certification under the voluntary labeling program will be given access to a secure USDA website, where they can download applicable BioPreferred logos, Buckhalt says. “You will only have access to the document that will let you download the label [applicable to the percentage you’ve been approved and certified for],” he says. This restricted access to the label is expected to help reduce fraudulent use, but Buckhalt notes it is unlikely to completely solve the problem.

Fraudulent use of the label ultimately hurts consumers by misinforming them, and also provides a market disadvantage to companies that really do include biobased content in their products. Buckhalt notes the Federal Trade Commission is gearing up to prosecute those who fraudulently use the label. “We have some friends at the FTC who would love to make an example out of some of these companies [that mislabel their products with BioPreferred label],” he says.

Marketing, Branding

Once consumers become familiar with the label and what it means, it should help drive consumer demand for biobased products by increasing awareness and visibility. The label will also provide biochemical producers, product manufacturers and retailers a new way to differentiate their offerings from petroleum-based counterparts, through both branding and marketing opportunities.

According to Rina Singh, policy director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, BIO recognizes how important the BioPreferred labeling program will be for the biotech industry and has lobbied extensively to support development of the program. BIO specifically worked to ensure the label could be applied to intermediate biobased products, such as the biobased chemicals and polymers that are used to produce consumer goods. “That label can now be put on an intermediate chemical,” she says, noting that as a certified intermediate biochemical moves through the manufacturing and supply chain, resulting products will also be eligible to use the label as long as the 25 percent minimum content is maintained. It’s really designed to benefit the entire value chain, she says.

Singh says the label will be important to industry because it allows for market-pull demand from consumers. “Anytime you can associate [your product] with a label that can generate or increase visibility that would improve market awareness, you would definitely embrace it, especially in this (industrial biotechnology) sector where we definitely want to be recognized in this space for our existence,” she says. “This is huge for the renewable chemicals and biobased products, a huge landmark.”

DuPont Applied Sciences has spoken out in support of the voluntary labeling program, and intends to pursue certification for all its product lines that meet the programs requirements. According to DuPont Applied Sciences President Craig Binetti, a primary benefit of participating in the program is that it will increase the visibility of biobased products and the technology behind them in the marketplace. “We believe that increasing the visibility can only help increase the demand for this unique product line,” he says.

While Binetti notes there are several “eco labels and certifications” currently in the marketplace, the USDA BioPreferred program will lend much more reliability to the space. “This one is backed by the government, so that lends credibility,” he says. “The ongoing challenge will be to increase the understanding around what the label means and signifies. Demand should increase as awareness and understanding of the label, and what it represents, increases.”

To date, manufacturers of biobased biodegradable/compostable plastics were able to certify and label their products under ASTM standards and a program established by the Biodegradable Products Institute. While the BPI certification program is an obvious benefit for those producing compostable materials, Jim Lunt, managing director of Jim Lunt & Associates LLC, notes that the program leaves out a significant component of the bioplastics industry—those who are making durable, noncompostable goods. “Since presently the BPI logo only applies to compostable materials, a significant portion of the biobased industry is left without an option to visibly market the biobased attributes of their product with any kind of third party certification other than being tested for renewable carbon content using ASTM D6866,” he says.

Lunt has extensive experience in both the petroleum-based and biobased plastic industries. He says that while the bioplastics sector is still represents an extremely small portion of the plastics industry, it is growing at a rapid rate. Although compostable bioplastics are popular, demand for durable biobased plastics is also growing. The USDA’s program, he says, will allow companies that make durable products, such as cell phone casings, printers and other durable plastic items, a way to capitalize on the biobased attributes of their offerings.

However, some companies, such as Cereplast Inc., plan to utilize both labeling options for applicable products. “Cereplast will dual-label if appropriate and certify for both the USDA BioPreferred label and the BPI label for compostability,” says Kelvin  Okamoto, Cereplast’s senior vice president of research and development. “We are anticipating,” Okamoto says, “that the program will finally provide consumers with a readily recognizable mechanism to identify products made from biobased materials, and easily distinguish what the actual biobased content of that product really is.” Before this program, he says, there was no common method for companies to evaluate the biobased content of their products. With a standardized, government-backed program, consumers will now be able to accurately compare similar materials produced by different companies and make more informed purchasing decisions.

Next Steps

“This is only a first step, but it’s a very important first step for our industry,” Singh says, noting that the minimum content level is expected to increase in the future as the biobased industry becomes more established. In fact, Buckhalt notes plans are already underway to expand and refine the BioPreferred labeling program.

“We are actually doing some work on new guidelines that will deal a little bit more with intermediates and complex products,” Buckhalt says. The guidelines will apply to products like cars, mattresses and other products where measuring the biobased content, and prescribing a minimum, can prove challenging. “We have done the initial legwork on putting together guidelines and guidance on how we are going to deal with complex products,” he continues, noting the results could be published early next year. “[We are] basically looking at some sort of mathematical formula based on the amount of carbon that can be new carbon,” Buckhalt says. In other words, there are parts of a car that could never be made of biobased materials, such as the engine and most metal components. The weighted formula being developed by USDA would determine by weight how much of a complex product, in this case a car, could potentially be made out of biobased materials.

According to Buckhalt, the 25 percent minimum is likely to be increased incrementally in the future as the market matures and more biobased products—with higher biobased content—become commonplace in the market. Although, he says, if you are going to make people reapply for the program and certify their products for a new label, good data would be needed to back up that decision. That said, Buckhalt stresses that it will likely be several years before any action is taken to increase the minimum requirement.

As for now, members of industry are working diligently to support the voluntary labeling program. “DuPont Applied Sciences is ready to support the USDA in its efforts to identify and promote biobased products, and the education and communication that will help build understanding, awareness and acceptance of these products in the marketplace,” Binetti says.

Members of the biorefining industry and their customers are working quickly to achieve USDA certification for their products. According to Buckhalt, the USDA received 40 applications for the labeling program the first day. As of March 4, 52 companies had submitted a total of 176 product applications. According to Okamoto, Cereplast has already begun the application process and has been receiving calls from customers interested in the program.

“Aside from it giving consumers a way to have a better understanding of what’s actually biobased, the program is also a way and a channel for the federal government to encourage consumers to buy biobased, and to consider and think about biobased,” says Nicole Cardi, Cereplast’s head of marketing and communications. “I think it is a very powerful force behind a lot of the growth that we’ll see into the future for biobased materials.”

“We are very, very excited to be a part of this program,” Buckhalt says. “This is not a new concept—not a new idea—but I think the time has come now to make biobased products part of mainstream America once again. Look back historically. At one time all of our products were made from biomaterials. The advent of petroleum changed that, but we’ve come full circle and I’m just excited we can be part of this, and begin to hopefully leave a little bit better world where we use sustainable, renewable resources to produce our industrial products.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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