Biobased Purchasing Power goes Mainstream
Computers made with corn starch. Carpets made from soybeans. Clothing made from bamboo. Cups, bowls, spoons, knives, and forks made from potato starch. Diesel fuel made from old french fry grease. Hydraulic fluid, oil, and other lubricants made from soybeans. Sound farfetched? It’s not. These are just some of the products government purchasers are buying as they seek high quality, affordable, “green” products that also reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.
Government purchasers interested in reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil or interested in improving the environmental performance of the products they buy are rediscovering biobased products. Biobased products are products manufactured from plant-based materials such as corn and soybean rather than from petroleum-based materials.
In many cases, the biobased products perform just as well or better than their petroleum-based counterparts. They can also be significantly more environmentally preferable because they are made from rapidly renewable materials and they produce significantly fewer global warming pollutants.
The benefits of biobased purchasing are so powerful that federal agencies are actually required to buy biobased products designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). State and local governments are also specifying biobased for similar reasons.
Federal Buy-Biobased Requirements
The 2002 Farm Bill (formerly known as the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002) requires federal purchasers to buy products made from biobased materials designated by USDA “to the maximum extent practicable.” USDA designates biobased products and recommends minimum biobased content in a process similar to the one used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate recycled-content products.
USDA has compiled a list of more than 100 products for potential designation. Thus far, it has formerly designated six products and recently proposed designating an additional ten products. In addition, USDA provides minimum biobased content recommendations, although purchasers are encouraged to buy products with the highest biobased content. (See table.)
Federal agencies that buy more than $10,000 worth of designated items annually are required to purchase the items containing biobased content. When a new item is designated, purchasers have one year to implement procedures to ensure they are buying products identified by USDA.
Like the federal requirement to buy recycled-content products designated by EPA, agencies must buy designated biobased products unless the agency determines the items are not available within a reasonable time period, they fail to meet applicable performance standards, or they are unreasonably expensive.
For additional information, visit the USDA Federal Biobased Products Preferred Procurement Program Web site at www.govinfo.bz/5973-100.
With both USDA and EPA designating “green” products, some products are covered by both agencies. USDA requires some lubricants, for example, to be biobased while EPA requires that they be purchased containing recycled-content. In cases where it is not possible to include both attributes (biobased and recycled-content), federal statute expresses a preference for recycled-content. The White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, however, recommends that purchasers base the decision on their performance needs, including environmental performance needs. If an agency needs a less toxic, environmentally preferable lubricant, a biobased product might be much more important than a recycled-content one.
Benefits of Biobased Products
Purchasers cite a variety of benefits for biobased products:
Promote additional markets for U.S. farmers. Many crops, including corn and soy bean, are currently produced in enormous surpluses in the United States. Using the surpluses to manufacture biobased products helps stabilize agricultural markets and protect local farm economies.
Reduce dependence on foreign oil. Most biobased products replace petroleum-based raw materials with plant-based alternatives. While oil is still used to produce the crops, there is a net reduction in oil consumption. Running buses on 100 percent biodiesel instead of petroleum diesel, for example, reduces net petroleum consumption 95 percent. Using a 20 percent biodiesel blend instead reduces net petroleum use by 19 percent.
Reduce emissions of global warming pollutants. Mining and manufacturing petroleum-based products releases carbon stored in the Earth’s crust into the environment and contributes to global warming. The carbon contained in plant-based materials is part of the natural carbon cycle and releases no additional carbon into the environment. It is preferable to mining carbon from the Earth’s crust. Using 100 percent biodiesel reduces net carbon dioxide emissions, a significant global warming pollutant, by 78.5 percent.
Are Biobased Products Environmentally Preferable?
While it may seem counter intuitive, not all biobased products are environmentally preferable. It is possible, for example, that a biobased cleaning product contains hazardous materials. As a result, purchasers must consider all of the environmental impacts of any product–greenhouse gas emissions, use of toxic materials, recycled-content, energy- and water-efficiency–along with more traditional price and performance considerations when selecting the most preferable alternative. Purchasers wishing to buy the most environmentally preferable cleaning products, for example, should look for biobased products that also meet the Green Seal or Environmental Choice standards.
Are All Biobased Products Biodegradable?
Biobased products are made from plant-based materials, but they are not necessarily biodegradable or compostable. Biodegradable products can be made from a variety of materials. They are designed to decompose into smaller units in the presence of naturally occurring micro organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. Some products biodegrade into potentially hazardous substances.
Compostable products are a type of biodegradable product that also decompose in the presence of naturally occurring micro-organisms. Compostable products, however, produce only carbon dioxide, water, and non-toxic inorganic compounds when they decompose.
Purchasers interested in biodegradable or compostable products must specify them referencing ASTM standards D6400 (bio-degradable) or D6868 (compostable). Biobased products will not necessarily meet these additional requirements.
Biobased Product Examples
A surprisingly wide variety of products can contain biobased content. The following examples provide a quick sampling.
Both the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED and the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes programs reward the use of biobased building materials, including insulation products, natural fibers, wheatboard, and other products made from rapidly renewable materials. The White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, EPA, and the Whole Building Design Guide partnered to produce the Federal Green Construction Guide for Specifiers, which includes a section devoted to ‘alternative agricultural products’. For additional information, visit www.govinfo.bz/5973-102.
Several major carpet manufacturers make carpets from biobased materials, including corn and soybean. California incorporated a preference for biobased content into its California Gold Sustainable Carpet Standard. For additional information, visit www.govinfo.bz/5973-103.
The EPEAT green computer standard, developed with funding from the EPA, awards optional points to computer products containing biobased content. Thus far, NEC is the only manufacturer reporting biobased content, but other manufacturers are reported to be exploring its use. For additional information, visit www.govinfo.bz/5973-104.
A variety of highly effective biobased cleaning products are available. The City of Santa Monica, California, is even using biobased cleaners to remove graffiti, one of the most challenging cleaning tasks. Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is also using biobased cleaners to tackle challenging cleaning tasks, including cleaning oil and grease from the jet engine repair shop and airport hangars. To ensure products are truly environmentally preferable, look for biobased products that have also been certified by Green Seal or Environmental Choice.
Biobased fuels include both ethanol and biodiesel. In the United States, ethanol is made primarily from corn. It is regularly used in small amounts as a gasoline additive to reduce engine knocking. It can also be mixed with gasoline to a blend of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol (known as E10) and used in any gasoline powered engine. In higher concentrations of up to 85 percent ethanol (E85), special flexible fuel engines are required.
Biodiesel is made from a variety of natural oils and fats. In the United States, it is primarily made from soybean oil, although it is also made from used cooking grease. It is used in a wide variety of diesel applications, including powering buses, trucks, heavy construction equipment, and ships. As part of its effort to reduce its global warming contributions, King County, Washington, plans to quadruple its use of biodiesel in all diesel-powered city vehicles to 20 percent.
Biobased hydraulic fluids are significantly less hazardous than their petroleum-based counterparts and, as a result, are significantly less expensive to clean up in case of a spill. A number of government purchasers are routinely using biobased hydraulic fluids in multiple applications.
The Department of Veterans Affairs uses biobased hydraulic and lubricating fluids in many outdoor applications. Some of their backhoes are using both biobased lubricants and biobased hydraulic fluids without any adverse performance issues.
The elevator to the top of the Statue of Liberty, which is operated by the National Park Service, contains biodegradable hydraulic fluid made from soybean oil. Other elevators around the country are also using biobased hydraulic fluids, including canola-oil based fluids.
A variety of starch-based plastics are now available for a variety of packaging uses from the take-out containers used in cafeterias to the products found in local grocery stores. The USDA has been successfully using compostable, biobased containers, cups, and utensils in its cafeteria for several years. McDonald’s has tested a starch-based container for its signature sandwiches and Wal-Mart is now packaging some fruit and vegetable products in biobased packaging. According to one manufacturer, manufacturing biobased packaging uses 68 percent less fossil fuel than the petroleum-based equivalent.
Biobased products offer a variety of benefits from reducing dependence on foreign oil to reducing global warming pollutants. When biobased products meet performance, delivery, and cost requirements, they can be a wonderful addition to any responsible purchasing program. With every biobased purchase, government purchasing officials are helping to grow a healthier economy, a healthier planet, and a healthier future.
About the Author
Scot Case is the founder of Responsible Sourcing Solutions, a consulting firm that helps organizations create value by integrating human health, environmental, and social considerations into strategic planning, purchasing, and other critical business decisions. He can be reached at [email protected]
Defining Biobased Products
According to the federal govern-ment, “biobased products are commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that utilize biological products or renewable domestic agricultural (plant, animal, and marine) or forestry materials.”
Additional Federal Requirements to Buy Biobased
The 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act requires federal agencies to buy biobased products designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition to the federal legislation, Executive Orders (EO) 13101 and 13134 also promote the use of biobased products. EO 13101 requires federal purchasers to consider biobased products when making purchasing decisions. EO 13134 promotes a variety of strategies to stimulate the creation and early adoption of technologies needed to make biobased products and bioenergy cost-competitive in large national and international markets.
Contracting Resources and Additional Information
USDA maintains a website with extensive information about biobased products, including a catalog of biobased products and templates for specifying them. It also contains a copy of the agency’s Affirmative Procurement Program plan for biobased products. Visit www.usda.gov/biobased for additional information.
The White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive’s Fall 2006 issue of Closing the Circle News includes a variety of biobased purchasing examples from the federal government. It is available online at www.ofee.gov.
The Federal Green Construction Guide for Specifiers includes a section devoted to “alternative agricultural products”; Visit www.govinfo.bz/5973-101.