Feds Say Yes to Bio-based Products

By Kimberly Palmer

We may not have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but that doesn’t mean the government is totally ignoring the environment. At Congress’s request in April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started a program that requires federal agencies to buy bio-based products, which are made from renewable sources such as soybean oil instead of petroleum. The department says the program will help boost the industry and encourage the creation of more bio-based products.

The USDA is starting slowly, and has compiled a list of petroleum-derived products that should be replaced with bio-based counterparts, including hydraulic fluids, roof and water tank coatings, diesel fuel additives, lubricants, and linens. Hand cleaners, sanitizers, and germ killers will likely be phased in over the coming months. The USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, one of the first places to embrace bio-based products, already uses bio-diesel fuel in its tractors, soybean oil as a lubricant for machinery, and bio-based soap in its bathrooms.

Senator Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa helped get the new requirement into the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act. “If you think about replacing all the plastic cups, forks and spoons at the Department of Defense with bio-based products, you get a feel for how big this idea could be,” he says. Shri Ramaswamy, head of the bio-based products department at the University of Minnesota, says the program is much like the first President Bush’s recycling program in the early 1990s, which required federal agencies to buy products made out of recycled materials. That program, Ramaswamy says, helped popularize recycling with the general public.

The government, it seems, can serve as a powerful role model, which begs the question: What would happen if it purchased military uniforms made from organic fibers, drove hybrid cars on official business, and served organic fare at state dinners?

Issue 25

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