Seeds of Change
A new ecolabel sprouts up to certify products with biobased content
WHEN SOURCING FOR GREEN
PROJECTS, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture probably doesn’t jump out as
a likely resource. However, corn and wheat
could be ingredients in a sustainable store
interior—and not just on the shelves. A new
product certification for furniture, building
materials, packaging, and other product
categories involves biobased content.
Developed by the USDA in response to a
mandate in the 2002 Farm Bill to create new
markets for commodity crops and agricultural
waste, the USDA Certified Biobased Product
label designates products that are not food,
feed, or fuels, but are made wholly or significantly of biological ingredients—renewable
plant, animal, marine, or forestry materials.
Available to manufacturers and distributors,
the certification can be applied to intermediate materials and feedstock as well as
finished products. In order to weed out commonplace items such as T-shirts and paper
plates, the USDA has declared products with
a significant market share in 1972 ineligible.
The USDA cites biobased products’ contri-
bution to several sustainable goals:
What does the label mean?
Unlike many ecolabels, the USDA Certified
Biobased Product label is product-specific.
The number on the label indicates
the percentage of biobased content
determined by a radiocarbon dating
method outlined in ASTM Method D6866.
credits that may be applicable, depending on the product. One of the credits most
strongly tied to biobased products is MR6:
Rapidly Renewable Materials. “While all rapidly renewable resources are biobased, not
all biobased materials are rapidly renewable,” the authors noted.
how fast is rapid?
ASTM International, which provides certification for the USDA label, defines a renewable resource as one “grown, naturally
replenished, or cleansed, at a rate which
exceeds depletion of the usable supply of
that resource.” But that rate varies with the
resource. A typical wood harvest rate is 30
years or more, according to the Journal of
Green Building report. For LEED purposes, a
rapidly renewable resource is one that can
be replenished in 10 years or less. So a material with the new USDA certification may contribute to the Rapidly Renewable Materials
credit if it meets that stipulation.
Still, the label offers a useful tool in finding materials with sustainable attributes. The
use of biobased products may have environmental benefits, regardless of whether
the project is seeking certification. Tradeoffs
must be taken into consideration; for example, a biobased product may not necessarily