Government introducing labels for bio-based products


WASHINGTON (Jan. 24, 3 p.m. ET) — With companies and retailers today using an endless number of ways to tout their products as bio-based, the new federal labeling and certification program is being welcomed by many in the industry as an approach that will bring clarity to consumers.

“We are very pleased with it. It has been a long time coming,” said Steve Davies, global marketing director for NatureWorks LLC in Minnetonka, Minn., in a phone interview. NatureWorks makes the plant-based resin Ingeo that is made from polylactic acid.

“It provides a common language at the consumer level from an authoritative third-party voice and will be great normalizer” in the marketplace.

Under the final rules of the labeling program, published Jan. 20 in the Federal Register, manufacturers and distributors can only use the label after they submit an application to the USDA, and the product or package is certified to have at least 25 percent of its content made from renewable resources.

ASTM will do the certification work for USDA, but the cost of that ASTM testing will be shouldered by the companies applying to use the label.

Although a number of companies, including NatureWorks and Metabolix Inc., had urged USDA to set a threshold of 50 percent and the agency had initially set 51 percent as the threshold for the label, the consensus is that the labeling program will provide a boost to bio-based products and end some of the confusion that exists today.

“It provides a credible way of communicating what the renewal amount of material is in a consumer product or package,” said Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute. “It is a step forward in terms of proper identification in terms of the features of a product. We are glad to see the USDA is taking this on. I think over time that number [percentage] will get higher as a national progression.”

Davies agreed. “We think a threshold is critical and we are not hung up on where it is. It is not so low that companies are going to be able to use the label and be greenwashing” — that is, making false claims about the product.

Equally important, the new BioPreferred label from the federal government “is a signal that bio-based matters and that it is important,” said Davies. “We see it as a firm move to bio-based content being an expectation, not an exception to the norm.”

“The release of the biopreferred labeling standards will help consumers identify products with bio-based content,” said Craig Binetti, president of DuPont Applied BioSciences in a statement.” This will go a long way to making what used to be alternative products into easily recognized, mainstream items.

“The biopreferred product label will help consumers identify and purchase products made from renewable resources,” added the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations in the United States and 30 other nations.

“With independent testing, consumers can be confident that products bearing the certified bio-based label are made with renewable resources,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s industrial & environmental section.

USDA estimates that there are 20,000 bio-based products currently being manufactured in the United States. It has already designated approximately 5,100 bio-based products for preferred purchasing by federal agencies under its BioPreferred programs, and has identified more 50 product categories for bio-based products including cafeteria ware, household and institutional cleaning products, personal care items, construction products, lubricants and greases.

“Today’s consumers are increasingly interested in making educated purchasing choices for their families,” said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “This label will make those decisions easier by identifying products as bio-based.”

USDA defines bio-based products are those composed wholly or significantly of biological ingredients — such as renewable plant, animal, marine or forestry materials.

But Mojo cautioned that consumers need to be aware of what the label does not convey.

“The label is not talking about or conveying information about end-of-life” or compostability, Mojo said. “It is not a green program, but it will at least help people know what’s in the product.”

The impact on companies that recycle plastics products is not clear yet.

“I am not sure,” said Steve Alexander, executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in an email. But it “does not look good one way or the other.”

The online application system for the USDA bio-based label is expected to go into operation Feb. 21. USDA projects that it will take six weeks to certify a product and grant approval to use the label.

The label or seal of certification will look similar to the one used by USDA for organic foods. The agency said that it hopes the seal gives bio-based products that same boost that the federal government’s Energy Star program gave energy-efficient appliances.


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