The federal government purchases a huge amount of goods and services, totaling $412 billion in 2006. Manufacturers of biobased products have a unique opportunity to connect with the nation’s largest marketplace – and to generate increased revenue to build their businesses while sustaining the environment and helping the farm economy.

The federal government purchases a huge amount of goods and services, totaling $412 billion in 2006. Manufacturers of biobased products have a unique opportunity to connect with the nation’s largest marketplace – and to generate increased revenue to build their businesses while sustaining the environment and helping the farm economy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the federal government will buy billions of dollars in biobased products within the next few years. To obtain a perspective on federal purchasing power, consider that the government spends nearly $3 million each year on adhesives alone.

Program Background

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, or Farm Bill, established the BioPreferred Program, requiring government agencies to give preference to biobased products when making their purchases.

This legislation directs the government – specifically the USDA – to determine whether products are biobased and to develop a labeling program identifying the product as certified by the USDA as biobased. The USDA will grant the use of this label for a limited number of years; manufacturers of biobased products will have to apply for reauthorization to continue using it.

The 2002 Farm Bill defines biobased products as composed in whole or in significant part from biological products, forestry materials or renewable agricultural materials, including plant, animal or marine materials. Food, feed and fuel are excluded. Through a cooperative agreement with the USDA, Iowa State University Extension’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) in Ames, Iowa, is investigating products that meet this definition to determine their biobased content and to set minimum standards for preferred procurement status.

President George W. Bush reinforced the BioPreferred Program when he signed Executive Order 13423 in January 2007. EO 13423 directs federal agencies involved with the environment, transportation and energy to act in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner. According to the order, agencies are required to purchase goods and services that use sustainable environmental practices, namely biobased, environmentally preferable, energy and water-efficient and recycled-content products.

However, the BioPreferred Program does contain some exemptions. Government agencies do not have to buy biobased products if a product is not readily available, if it fails to meet performance standards for the intended application, or it is prohibitively high in price. A department determines whether a product is too costly based on its own budget and environmental considerations. Also, government agencies have to purchase $10,000 worth of a biobased product, or have purchases totaling $10,000 in the previous fiscal year, before they must opt for biobased.

How the Process Works

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing the BioPreferred Program in stages – or what the USDA calls rounds. Each round contains about 10 biobased items, and the items include multiple products under a broad heading. For example, an item in the first round is bedding, bath and linens. The research conducted by CIRAS establishes the items in each round.

During a 60-day period, the USDA solicits comments about the items in each round from various entities, including private citizens, companies, industry organizations and other federal agencies, before it establishes a rule specifying an item as biobased. The final rule becomes part of the Federal Register, the official text of federal laws.

Agencies are required to give preference to a certain category of biobased products only after the rule is in place. Once a biobased category of products enters the Federal Register, then all federal agencies have up to one year to give preference to that category of biobased products when making purchases – unless it falls under one of the exemptions mentioned previously.

How Products Qualify as Biobased

Iowa State researchers perform a number of steps before determining whether a product is biobased. They ask manufacturers to supply the testing standards used to evaluate their products and to list the benefits that they claim these products have. They also ask some manufacturers to supply product samples. Based on the information collected, program researchers decide whether a specific product warrants further investigation and whether to recommend it to the USDA for preferred procurement.

BioPreferred Program researchers use two tools to evaluate potential biobased products: carbon-14 (C14) laboratory testing and Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) assessment. The C14 laboratory test indicates the amount of biobased content in a product while the BEES assessment provides the effects on the environment and human health. The USDA funds the expenses related to the laboratory test and the analysis.

To determine C14 levels, CIRAS sends representative samples of products within a certain item group to a laboratory that follows American Society for Testing and Materials standards. Agricultural materials in biobased products contain C14, whereas petroleum-made products contain little if any. The test pinpoints biobased content to an accuracy of +/- 3%.

The BEES assessment is a software program developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Manufacturers complete a questionnaire and then the analysis assesses the life cycle costs of production, providing scores related to environmental and health impacts. This software program originated in the building industry, but it has since been expanded to look at products from a wide range of manufacturers.

Current Status of the Program

The biobased market covers a multitude of products. CIRAS has identified about 2,000 manufacturers producing more than 10,000 products in nearly 200 categories. In the first four rounds, CIRAS and USDA reviewed 36 items containing over 2,000 products and involving almost 600 companies.

The rules for the first round of products were entered in the Federal Register in 2006, becoming federal law. The final rules for rounds two through four are still being considered; the proposed rules were published in the Federal Register in 2006, but these rules are not official yet. CIRAS has submitted supporting information to USDA for rounds five through seven and is researching rounds eight through twelve.

The USDA expects the voluntary labeling program to be in place in fall 2008 after obtaining comments from the public. The biobased label will be available to manufacturers with established products and those who have products being offered for the first time in the commercial market. Only products approved for preferred procurement will be eligible.

Once the BioPreferred Program is fully in place, manufacturers with approved biobased products are expected to see the benefits quickly. A 2007 national public opinion survey conducted by NuStats for the United Soybean Board reveals public interest in biobased products is strong. Overall, 63 percent of those surveyed were interested in biobased products or want to learn more about them. Federal employees have an even greater familiarity than the general public when it comes to biobased. The USDA wants to establish the agency as a leader in biobased purchases, with plans to increase its own biobased purchasing contracts by 50 percent in the next five years.

This paper was presented at The Waterborne Symposium, sponsored by The University of Southern Mississippi School of Polymers and High Performance Materials and The Southern Society for Coatings Technology, 2008, New Orleans, LA.