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.

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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.

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