Launched to push market development of biologically based products, the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) BioPreferred Program in Washington, D.C. has a voluntary certification program that’s growing a new crop of products. The program uses a USDA Certified Biobased Product label to announce when products stem from biological sources such as plant, animal, and aquatic materials.

Manager of the BioPreferred Program Ron Buckhalt reflects that before petroleum came on the scene in 1862, all products were derived plant or animal sources. Petroleum made for a cheap base, however, and its widespread adoption generated pollution, products that don’t degrade within a reasonable timeframe, and a reliance on a finite, non-renewable source.

“We want to rely on sustainable sources to create industrial products so the label is a way to reward those who do, “Buckhalt says. “It offers a marketing advantage over petroleum-based products or other non-sustainable materials.”

Authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill and re-authorized in the 2008 bill, the biobased product label hones in only on a product’s new carbon content. The intent of the program, largely funded by the Commodity Credit Corp., was to inspire new biobased products. Those products that have enjoyed strong market penetration by 1972 (such as a cotton T-shirt or a wooden table) aren’t currently certifiable. However, the new products must be commercially available to show that they are legitimate and viable. 

To date, almost 1,000 individual products in more than 100 categories have been certified. Products including flooring, roofing, composite panels, sealants, and coatings all sport Certified Biobased Product labels. 

The soy-based hydraulic fluid used to power 100 elevators at Pennsylvania State University’s State College campus is one example that demonstrates the value of a certified biopreferred product. Because the elevator’s cylinders extend underground, the soy-based fluid is much less hazardous to soil and ground water in the event of a cylinder leak and it saves the college potential remediation costs.

To get certified, the USDA program conducts initial product screening and relies on ASTM International to provide a chain of custody in the process. ASTM sends the product to one of two third-party laboratories in the nation that perform ASTM D6866 radiocarbon analysis:  Beta Analytic in Miami or Xceleron in Germantown, Md. Certification takes about 60 days, and while the government does not charge a fee, the ASTM test costs the manufacturer $400 to $700.

Buckhalt says building industry products are among the most difficult to certify because so many products rely on petroleum. “But the science is getting better all the time with a lot of research happening at the federal level and by private companies. We’re tapping into what we learned by making petroleum products and applying that science to biobased materials,” says Buckhalt. “It’s an evolutionary process, and we’re in a good position to see results.”

Click here to read a companion article on the process of mapping high-performance materials in order to calculate their full environmental effects and their embodied energy. 

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.