Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

How The USDA’s BioPreferred Program Is Helping Bioplastics Expand

Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) BioPreferred Program has focused on accelerating the development and expansion of markets for biobased products, including bioplastics. As part of SPI’s inaugural Bioplastics Week, we recently sat down with Kate Lewis, deputy program manager at USDA to learn more.


What is the BioPreferred Program? 

The BioPreferred Program is a USDA-led initiative whose goal is to increase the purchasing and use of biobased products, including bioplastics. The Program operates through two initiatives – a voluntary certification and labeling program and mandatory federal purchasing requirements for federal agencies and contractors.

Tell us more about the mandatory purchasing requirements. 

Under federal law, government agencies and contractors are required to purchase a certain percentage of biobased goods. To date, the USDA has identified 97 categories for which agencies and their contractors have mandatory purchasing requirements. Examples of product categories include carpet cleaners, lubricants, paints and construction materials. The USDA assigns each category a minimum biobased content level. To qualify for federal purchasing, products must meet or exceed the minimum level required for their product category.

What does it mean to be a qualified biobased product? 

A qualified biobased product signifies that the product qualifies for mandatory federal purchasing (FP). This means that the product meets or exceeds the minimum biobased content requirements for one or more product categories that have been identified by USDA. Manufacturers self-identify the product’s biobased content in order to participate in this initiative. Qualified products are denoted with the FP symbol in the BioPreferred catalog.

Product ‘qualification’ is different from ‘certification’, an initiative the program also offers.

BIO LOGO01.05.11-colors10.2

How does the Voluntary Product Certification and Labeling initiative work? 

The Voluntary Labeling Initiative is designed to provide useful information to consumers about the biobased content of products. Voluntary labeling is a seven-step process that involves multiple application filings and product testing. The first step is to submit an application to the USDA. Upon approval, companies can begin determining the biobased content of their product by sending samples to an independent third-party lab for testing. Labs administer an ASTM D6866 test, the standard analytical method for measuring the biobased content of a product or package. As long as test results indicate that the product meets or exceeds USDA’s biobased content levels, the product can be labeled as certified and be included in the mandatory federal purchasing catalog. Once a product is certified, the company may choose to display the USDA Certified Biobased Product label.

Symbolizing the sun, soil and aquatic environments, the label informs consumers about the product’s percent of certified biobased content. Labels with an FP symbol designate that the product also qualifies for Mandatory Federal Purchasing. As part of certification, companies also receive a set of brand guidelines to follow when displaying the label on literature, advertisements and/or product packaging.

What percentage of the biobased catalog is composed of bioplastics?

Products in categories that commonly include bioplastics make up approximately 15 percent of our total catalog. When looking at only certified products, the figure is closer to 25 percent.

What are some examples of products that use the USDA Certified Biobased Product label?

To date, USDA has certified more than 2,800 biobased products – a number of which are bioplastics. From disposable tableware to bioplastic baby toys to personal care and packaging products like laundry detergent, more biobased products are being certified each day. For a complete listing of certified products, visit biopreferred.gov and click on the catalog tab.

Which product category has the most biobased products?

In terms of the sheer number of certified products, the disposable tableware product category leads the way with 218 individually certified biobased products. These products include plates, cups, bowls, trays and other food service items.

Are there any trends you see in the biobased bioplastics industry?

One trend we are seeing is an overall change in the ingredients used to create bioplastics. Presently, most biobased bioplastics are sourced from plant-based raw materials like corn and sugar cane. However, research has indicated that in the coming years, more bioplastics will likely be sourced from non-food based sources like algae, municipal waste and even waste carbon dioxide. The development and adoption of these new feedstocks will create new markets and economic opportunities, in turn further increasing the usage of renewable resources and valorizing ‘waste’ products.

USDA Economic Impact LabelWhere do you see biobased bioplastics in 20 years?

According to an Economic Impact report commissioned by the BioPreferred program in 2015, the market for bioplastics is increasing by 20 to 30 percent annually. By 2036, biobased bioplastics will likely serve as a significant economic driver as more companies continue to shift production away from petroleum-based plastics in favor of more biobased options. In fact, studies have shown that simply replacing 20 percent of the current plastics produced in the U.S. with bioplastics would yield about 104,000 new jobs.

How do biobased bioplastics support agriculture?

A rapidly growing number of biobased bioplastics are being produced and developed using agricultural feedstocks. As technology develops further, the uses for feedstocks in the development of bioplastics will continue to expand. This growth in consumption will ensure that this commodity is kept in high demand- thereby supporting increased agricultural production of feedstocks across the board.

How are you working to improve interest in the biobased bioplastics industry?

By helping bioplastics companies across every step of the value chain participate in mandatory federal purchasing and voluntary labeling initiatives, we are building a strong and enduring marketplace for biobased goods.

Friday, August 19th, 2016

A New Study May Make Conversations about Plastics Easier


Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division

A guest post by Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division.

Has this happened to you? You’re at a dinner party or family gathering or neighborhood get-together. Someone asks you what you do. A conversation about plastics ensues. And you struggle to find a really simple way to explain plastics’ many benefits and contributions to sustainability.

I’m guessing we’ve all been there.  And the answer just got easier to explain.

New study

A new study by the environmental consulting firm Trucost uses “natural capital accounting” methods that measure and value environmental impacts, such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land, and water. The authors describe it as the largest natural capital cost study ever conducted for the plastics manufacturing sector.

The results?  “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” finds that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.

Trucost found that replacing plastics with alternatives would increase environmental costs associated with consumer goods from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.

Why is that? Predominantly because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging. While the environmental costs of alternative materials can be slightly lower per ton of production, they are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.

Think about it. Every day, strong, lightweight plastics allow us to ship more product with less packaging, enable our vehicles to travel further on a gallon of gas, and extend the shelf-life of healthful foods and beverages. And all of these things help reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.

Why do this study?

This new study follows an earlier report called “Valuing Plastics (2014)” that Trucost conducted for the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP). “Valuing Plastics” was Trucost’s first examination of environmental cost of using plastics. While clearly an important study, it begged the key question: compared to what? After all, consumer goods need to be made out of something.

So ACC’s Plastics Division commissioned Trucost to compare the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials, as well as to identify opportunities to help plastics makers lower the environmental costs of using plastics. The expanded study also broadened the scope of the earlier work to include use and transportation, thus providing a more complete picture of the full life cycle of products and packaging.

We see “Plastics and Sustainability” as a contribution to the burgeoning and vital global discussion on sustainability. Like any single study, it doesn’t “prove” that plastics are always better for the environment than alternatives. But it is an important study based on a rigorous and transparent methodology. And it provides a fuller picture of the environmental benefits of using plastics.

“Plastics and Sustainability” provides the plastics value chain with important information on plastics and sustainability so that we all can make better decisions. The entire plastics value chain is engaged in discussions with policymakers, brand owners, retailers, recyclers – and consumers – about how to be good corporate citizens and contribute to sustainability. A better understanding of the life cycle of materials will better inform these discussions and should lead all of us to more sustainable materials management decisions. This study’s findings also will help inform us how to further reduce the environmental cost of plastics.

In other words, making smart choices about what we produce and how we produce it will benefit people and the planet.

New perspective

So in light of this new study, next time you or I struggle for the right words, perhaps let’s try this:

“Did you know that replacing plastics with alternatives would actually increase environmental costs by nearly four times?”

Let me know how it goes.

You can find more information about the Trucost study and some interesting visualizations of the findings here.

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Sustainability in the Olympics: Striving to Set a Gold Standard

Rio de Janeiro, Sugarloaf Mountain by Sunset

Every four years, millions around the world turn their attention to the Olympic Games and watch athletes bike, flip, swim and run to represent their respective countries in the global competition. While spectators and athletes alike have their eyes set on bringing home the gold, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set its own goal to minimize its environmental impact. Over the years, the Olympic Games have provided a global stage for brands and corporations to launch innovative, sustainable projects. Check out this timeline below.


The IOC adopted “Environment” as a principle of Olympism. This new principle signified the start of a unified effort to make greener plans for the world’s largest sporting event.


During the Sydney games, eco-friendly athletic attire had its Olympic debut when two runners crossed the finish line sporting Nike’s first recycled PET clothing.


The Olympic Games returned “home” to Athens for the first time since 1896. Planners installed special disposal bins for plastic bottles to help manage the environmental pressure that comes with hosting an event attended by millions.


In the Beijing games, Nike’s PET athletic line returned to the spotlight when track and field athletes from 17 different countries sported the uniforms. Coca-Cola joined the team and gave every Olympic athlete a t-shirt created with PET from five recycled water bottles. The shorts sported the slogan “I am from Earth” on the front to signify the unified effort to preserve the environment.

Sprinter getting ready to start the race


Basketball teams from Brazil, China and USA competed for the top spot in Nike shorts and uniforms made from 100 percent recycled polyester, respectively, which saved an average of 22 bottles per uniform. In addition, American sprinters wore tracksuits that were each made of material from 13 recycled water bottles.


At this year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Brazil highlighted its host country pride by installing a sculpture of the Olympic rings in Copacabana. The installation, which is 3 meters tall and 6 meters wide, was created using 65 kilograms of recycled plastic.  In addition, the medals will be held around athletes’ necks by ribbons composed of recycled plastic bottles.

  Olympic gold medal

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Is Your Product Industrially Compostable?



Companies today are focused on creating products that are sustainable, meaning they are made with materials that minimize the impact on our environment. You may have some familiarity with biodegradable products, which are one solution to companies’ need to create environmentally-conscious products. When marketing sustainable attributes to consumers, the Federal Trade Commission has said that these claims must not be confusing, and should be supported. To aid our members and other companies, SPI recently released a Guidance Document: Industrial Compostability Claims Checklist to help evaluate your product’s or packaging’s industrial compostability claims.

There’s some confusion out there when it comes to understanding biodegradability. Let’s clear things up a bit by first explaining what it means for materials to be biodegradable.p evaluate your product’s or packaging’s industrial compostability claims.




Biodegradable means that something will be consumed completely with the assistance of microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi.

  • When a biodegradable plastic (bioplastics) is disposed, it will be broken down into biomass, carbon dioxide, and water, if in an oxygen-rich environment, or methane, if in an oxygen-poor environment.
  • There are different methods to make biodegrade materials, such as:
    • Marine degradation (degrades in the ocean),
    • Soil degradation (degrades in the soil), or
    • Home/industrial composting.

Now, let’s break down composting.


Biodegradable 1


Composting can be coined “home” or “industrial” composting.

Home composting differs from industrial composting in three major ways: 

  • Scale: Industrial composting is done by the truckload, and compost windrows (long rows of piled compost) can weigh thousands of pounds. In contrast, home composters may have a small pile or barrel
  • Management: Industrial composting is much more actively managed.
  • Temperature: In industrial composting, the compost mound is very hot due to the composted materials being shredded, turned frequently and handled with more rigor than in home composting, which is done in much cooler temperatures.

Industrial composting is very common throughout Europe. The United States has fewer opportunities to divert food/yard waste and compostable bioplastics to industrial composters. To see if there is a composter in your area, go to FindAComposter.com. Each composter’s process is different, and some only accept yard waste, or only food service waste; others  do not accept bioplastics. Be sure to check before composting!

Like all plastics, bioplastics need to be properly disposed of when they’ve reached the end of their usefulness, in a way that maximizes their value, whether that’s through recycling, home composting or industrial composting.

Monday, July 25th, 2016

Summer Excursion: Members Tour EREMA, UMass Lowell and Learn About Recycling and Plastics Engineering

The plastics industry continues to find innovative ways to create products that are environmentally friendly without compromising the needs of consumers. In a world where recycling is a learned-behavior, along the way there has been urban legend that foam cups – popular in many an office and college party – are not recyclable. SPI recently held a tour of EREMA Plastic Recycling Systems in Ipswich, MA where members learned first-hand about how to turn foam materials into plastic pellets.


These foam chips are turned into plastic pellets.


Here are the plastic pellets being created.


“It seemed like a good opportunity to promote recycling of materials that aren’t typically recycled. If you use the right equipment, it can be done efficiently and you can make a good product,” said Mike Horrocks, CEO, EREMA North America, Inc.


Ing. Clemens Kitzberger, business development manager at EREMA Group GmbH, Austria and Mike Horrocks, CEO at EREMA North America, Inc.


After touring EREMA, members drove over to UMass Lowell, one of our nation’s only schools dedicated to plastics engineering. The school offers cutting-edge lab research opportunities and internship opportunities with some of the nation’s leading manufacturers and corporations.