When it comes to biobased products, the feds may be ahead of the curve. This time, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (known as the Farm Bill) reflects unprecedented support for environmental stewardship.

A principal part of the bill requires federal agencies to give preference to biobased products. Final guidelines for the program are expected later this year.

Under the law, a biobased product is a commercial or industrial item (other than food or feed) that is composed, in whole or in significant part, of biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials (including plant, animal and marine materials) or forestry materials. Common biobased products are made of corn, soybeans and feedstock.

The Farm Bill will affect the federal government’s cleaning-product purchases. And the biobased product movement could cause a ripple effect, with state governments and even the private sector following suit. An emerging issue, biobased technology could prove very important to the entire cleaning industry.

“Basically everything that can be made out of petroleum is meant to be replaced with a plant-based alternative,” says Kim Kristoff, founder and chairman of the Biobased Manufacturers Association. “The point is to promote independence in the farming community to increase dependence on domestic goods and reduce dependence on foreign oil.”

A greener cleaning option?
Environmentalists agree that, in theory, biobased products are good because they use renewable resources in place of a limited supply of oil. However, just because a product uses sustainable materials doesn’t mean it is perfect.

A product that uses only waste products, such as wheat straw, has definite environmental benefits, says Mark Petruzzi, vice president of certification for Green Seal, a non-profit group that labels and promotes environmentally friendly products. But when a crop is grown for a specific purpose and is also used to make another product, such as a cleaner, then the entire life-cycle (the manufacturing process, etc.) needs to be considered.

“I’m hopeful that people will not put the blinders on and look only at the source of the raw material,” Petruzzi says. “Biobased is one piece of the environmental picture. It’s not the only consideration. Don’t lose sight of the forest for the individual trees.”

Likewise, a biobased product is not necessarily safer.
“You can take a caster bean and grind it up and make an extract called resin,” says Bob Denton, co-founder and vice president of product development for Soy Technologies, Delray Beach, Fla. The company makes bio-based, VOC-compliant, industrial, commercial and consumer chemical products. “It’s 100 percent biobased but that doesn’t mean it’s safe or good for the environment.”

These points are not meant to scare people away from biobased products. Rather, they are a reminder that purchasers need to learn about the products they buy. That’s where organizations like Green Seal or the Center for a New American Dream, an environmental non-profit group that focuses on the connection between American consumption habits and environmental and social issues, can help.

“Even though there are some wonderful biobased products out there, we still encourage purchasers to make sure that all products are able to meet the human health criteria we’ve posted on our Web site,” says Scot Case, director of the Institutional Purchasing Program for the Center for a New American Dream. “Buy cleaning chemicals that can demonstrate that they meet the Center’s purchasing criteria or Green Seal’s standard. Once you cross that threshold, then pick the products that are biobased.”

The guideline timeline
“The sad thing is that the Farm Bill has been in place for two years and we’ve felt no effect from it,” Denton says, referring to the lack of purchasing guidelines.

One official predicts guidelines by October of this year. “Two years is almost warp speed given the process we have to go through,” says Marvin Duncan, senior agricultural economist in the Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Environmental purchasing preferences already on the books trump the biobased program, Duncan says. There are three exemptions that free federal agencies from buying biobased: if the products do not meet performance requirements; if they are not reasonably priced; and if they are not readily available.

Duncan says the program also will include a voluntary labeling program, in which manufacturers will self-certify the contents of their biobased products.

“We want to make the program as reasonable as possible for these manufacturers and the federal agencies,” he says.

Is the future biobased?
When the federal purchasing program is finally up and running, will it make a difference? Biobased products are already available in the marketplace but their sales are unimpressive.

That is probably due to price, not performance. For example, Case’s organization tested graffiti cleaners and found that the most effective and best for the environment contained biobased ingredients. Denton’s company makes a biobased graffiti cleaner and says it costs 10 to 20 times as much to make that product as it does to produce a more common version.

“It’s a much more expensive, lower-margin market to be in,” says Denton. “That’s one of the big problems with biobased, you don’t make humongous margins that you do with traditional products. We can’t have huge advertising campaigns or pay off lobbyists.”

While the up-front costs of bioboased products may be higher, there are savings over the life of the items. Environmentally friendly products are often non-toxic, which can reduce odors and allergens, reduce liability, and make for easier disposal.

Denton is optimistic that “in two to three years it will be a different ballgame altogether.” Kristoff agrees; he predicts that 30 to 40 percent of all products (at least those specified by the government) will be biobased in about two years. Most people involved in the environmental movement agree that the federal program will have a big impact.

“When the federal government takes a stance like this, it percolates throughout the entire economy,” says Case. “Once the federal government says its buildings are to be cleaned with environmentally safe products, the janitorial supply companies make the switch in their inventory and they end up introducing these products to the private sector.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.