What Is USDA Biopreferred & How Eco Friendly Are USDA Biobased Products?
USDA BioPreferred and USDA Biobased—what do these mean? And how sustainable are USDA Biobased products?
There are a lot of sustainability initiatives, memberships, and logos popping up on products we bring home. Each with their own set of promises and problems.
And this one’s no different.
So let’s get to the bio-bottom, looking at the USDA BioPreferred Program and what their USDA certified biobased products actually mean for us and our planet.
The Full List For USDA Biobased Products
1. USDA Biopreferred Program: An Overview
Its aim was (and is) to increase the purchase and use of biobased products in order to boost economic development, create jobs, provide markets for farm commodities, and reduce US reliance on petroleum.
The federal government spends more than $400 billion on goods and services annually.
When that money goes toward purchasing biobased products—many of which are environmentally friendly—it can promote safer, healthier workplaces and support Rural America.
The Program thus mandates biobased purchasing requirements for federal agencies (e.g. increased purchase of USDA biobased cleaners, carpet, inks, lubricants, paints, paper, and plastics).
Government spending aside, it also paved the way for a voluntary labeling initiative for biobased products sold commercially for everyday consumers.
Defining biobased products:
As defined by the USDA, a biobased product is a “commercial or industrial product (other than food or feed) that is:
- Composed, in whole or in significant part, of biological products, including renewable domestic agricultural materials, renewable chemicals, and forestry materials; or
- An intermediate ingredient or feedstock”
Biobased content differentiates between “new” organic carbon (plant or agricultural-based), like a tree and “old” organic carbon (fossil fuel-based), like coal.
For example, some milk cartons are up to 90% biobased (paper + petroleum-based plastic coating).
Styrofoam, on the other hand, is 0% biobased (made from polystyrene, a type of plastic and petroleum derivative).
2. USDA Biopreferred Certification
Think of the USDA Certified Biobased Product logo as the USDA BioPreferred label because “biobased” and “biopreferred” are synonymous.
The USDA Certified Biobased Product label was developed through the BioPreferred Program as a way for consumers to purchase products with sustainable attributes.
A business with a biobased product can apply for certification once they meet USDA criteria.
This involves ASTM D6866 testing, which simply determines the percentage of biobased content—or organic carbon + fossil fuel-based carbon / total carbon x 100.
How biobased testing works for the USDA biopreferred label
The ASTM D6866 standard uses radiocarbon decay analysis to measure the biobased carbon content of solids, liquids, and gaseous products.
In order to get the equivalent of the USDA BioPreferred logo, a product is lab-tested to ensure it meets standards for certification for a USDA Certified Biobased Product.
Specifically, it undergoes radiocarbon dating, which provides age estimates for a carbon-based material derived from living organisms.
A carbon molecule loses atoms roughly every 5,730 years, providing a method that can be used to date something.
For those who don’t remember this lesson from high school science class, this video explains how carbon ratios can be compared to estimate something’s age and whether it contains mostly “new” (0-10 years old) biobased carbon.
3. What Products Can Be USDA Biopreferred?
You may see the USDA Certified Biobased Product label on alternative products not conventionally petroleum-derived.
These mostly include bioplastics, detergents, fertilizers, inks, and lubricants.
However, USDA BioPreferred certified products span 139 categories in total, with each category having specific minimum biobased content requirements.
Products that don’t fall under one of the categories must be at least 25% biobased to bear the logo.
Some of those more relevant to sustainable and ethical beauty, low waste living, and fashion include:
- Art supplies
- Baby wipes
- Baby and kids diapers
- Baby and kids – laundry products
- Baby and kids – lotions, moisturizers, and oils
- Baby and kids – oral care products
- Baby and kids – sun care products
- Bath products
- Bedding, bed linens, and towels
- Candles and wax melts
- Cleaning tools
- Dishwashing products
- Disposable containers
- Disposable/durable cutlery
- Disposable/durable tableware
- Fabric dyes
- Feminine care products
- General purpose household cleaners
- Hair care products – conditioners
- Hair care products – shampoos
- Hair styling products
- Hand cleaners
- Kitchenware and accessories
- Laundry products – dryer sheets
- Lotions and moisturizers
- Mattresses, mattress toppers, and pillows
- Oral care products – toothpaste and mouthwash
- Rugs and floor mats
- Shaving products
- Shopping and trash bags
- Sun care products
- Toys and sporting gear
- Writing utensils – pens
The full USDA Certified Biobased product list (inclusive of all categories) can be found here.
4. What Does A USDA Certified Biobased Product Mean?
With USDA BioPreferred Certified products, you’ll see a logo with circular sun, land, and water images, the words “USDA Certified Biobased Product,” and the percentage that’s biobased (in some cases).
Some labels may bear two percentages, one denoting the biobased content of the product itself and the other of the packaging.
That percentage refers to how much of the total content comes from a renewable source, or feedstocks derived from:
- Marine sources
- Forestry sources
The USDA Certified Biobased logo is third-party certified and strictly monitored by the USDA.
5. How Eco Friendly Is A USDA Biopreferred Product?
So, what does USDA BioPreferred mean from a sustainability standpoint?
While the biobased program itself is driven by sustainability principles, it’s important to note that biobased products aren’t always the greener choice.
Environmental drawbacks to biobased products
The test methods which ASTM D6866 standard uses to assess biobased products does not address product performance, functionality, or environmental impact.
Just because it’s from renewable resources doesn’t automatically mean a USDA biobased product has a lower carbon footprint.
Corn and sugarcane are often used in biobased products—which are often genetically modified and come with pretty hefty water, fertilizer, pesticide, and energy usage.
Fertilizers specifically release nitrous oxide emissions—a greenhouse gas 298 times stronger than CO2. Being largely phosphorus-based, they also contaminate the water table and contribute to biodiversity loss in natural water systems.
Sometimes, plants are grown specifically for use in biobased products, which may compete with food production or compromise a region’s biodiversity.
Biobased materials may also require extra ingredients and processing to compete with their fossil fuel-based counterparts, resulting in a higher footprint.
Those sourced from animals may be associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions, too.
Perhaps most importantly, just because something is biobased doesn’t always mean it’s biodegradable or compostable—a common confusion that may result in an end-of-life fate that’s equivalent to or worse than throwing away something made from fossil fuels.
How sustainable is a USDA BioPreferred product?
That said, the shift away from fossil fuels and towards biobased products is absolutely needed and the growing number of USDA BioPreferred Certified products demonstrates the increasing awareness of this fact.
USDA BioPreferred products have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality.
And because they displace around 300 million gallons of petroleum per year in the US alone, the USDA compared biobased products to the removal of 200,000 cars off the road.
6. Benefits Of Consuming A USDA Biopreferred Product
As for the benefits of using a USDA BioPreferred product, you have to take into consideration the life cycle assessment (LCA) of the product.
- Does the material absorb and store CO2 while it grows (this generally applies to only plants that grow 100+ years)?
- Are the materials grown in a sustainable way (i.e. without the use of fertilizers and pesticides)?
- Are the materials grown locally (reducing transport emissions) and in a way that doesn’t compromise biodiversity?
- Is the biobased product made from agricultural byproducts (i.e. hemp, straw stems, and wood dust)?
- What happens to the biobased product at the end of its life? Is it biodegradable? Or better, compostable?
USDA BioPreferred products can also help create jobs.
In 2015 alone, USDA biobased products contributed $369 billion to the US economy and supported 4 million jobs.
Like everything else with conscious consumerism, the benefits of buying a USDA BioPreferred product over a petroleum-based one is a stand for a fossil-free future.
We could all do a little more of this.
7. USDA Biobased Brands
More than 2,500 items have been deemed USDA BioPreferred products.
Here are a few examples:
- Eucalypso makes sustainable bedding from eucalyptus that is USDA Biobased Certified.
- Brush with Bamboo has a zero waste toothbrush that is made with USDA Biobased Certified bristles paired with a bamboo handle.
- Seventh Generation’s liquid laundry detergent is made with 97% USDA Biobased Certified ingredients.
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Final Thoughts On USDA Biopreferred & USDA Biobased
As a recap, what is a USDA Certified Biobased product?
It’s one that meets a minimum percentage of renewable plant, animal, marine, or forestry materials instead of fossil fuels.
While the sustainability of USDA BioPreferred products is complicated and not in all cases the right answer, it can still (on balance) be considered a step in the right direction.
If 2,500 items can displace more than 300 million gallons of petroleum, just imagine if more of our eco friendly cleaning, personal care, beauty, and household products were made from “new” carbon?
If we’ve reached (or will soon reach) peak oil, you’ll likely see a lot more USDA BioPreferred products making an appearance.
Share this article (or knowledge) with friends and family so they too can keep an eye out for USDA biobased product logos and support a fossil free world.