Plant Based Products Council's new executive director takes on a biobased vision of the future

Plant Based Products Council's new executive director takes on a biobased vision of the future

plant based product council logo over bioplastics
GreenBiz Collage with Plant-based Product Council

The Plant Based Products Council, a recently launched industry group, is taking on the plastic crisis. 

Since plastic's mass adoption just over half a century ago, it has been used in everything from automobiles, medical instruments and packaging to electronics and building materials. Too often, though, at the petroleum-based synthetic material's end of use, it's forgotten about. Yet it stays in existence and has ended up all over the world, in our oceans, on our mountains, in our bodies — places it's not supposed to be. 

Public pressure is mounting to address the plastic crisis. But how do we simply cease use of the material that has enabled modern life? One big idea: replace it with a similar material with the same flexible, convenient properties, but with different ends-of-life.

Using plants and plant byproducts as the source of plastics means that less fossil fuels will be used, and theoretically, these plastics could be compostable or biodegradable and not exist in perpetuity. 

The Plant Based Products Council (PBPC) launched earlier this year to advocate for these plant-based alternatives. Since its launch, PBPC has gathered corporates seeking solutions, startups developing them and NGOs working to implement them. 

Last month, the group found its first executive director, bioeconomy veteran Jessica Bowman. In addition to her role at PBPC, Bowman serves as the vice president of advanced bioproducts at the Corn Refiners Association. Previously, she worked as senior director of global fluoro-chemistry at the American Chemistry Council and as senior director of environmental affairs at the Airport Council International.  

I recently caught up with her over the phone to find out more about her vision for the organization, why sustainability matters and how to get member buy-in. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Holly Secon: What are your plans for the Plant Based Products Council?

Jessica Bowman: Our overall mission, of course, is to help move the global economy toward more sustainable and responsible consumer products and packaging through the greater use of plant-based materials. For me, having started in the last couple weeks, I think our more immediate focus is in a couple of different areas.

One is, I think, growth of the organization, so raising the profile of the organization and its mission. And then we're hoping to expand our quickly growing member cities. One of the other 13 pillars of the organization is education, raising awareness of plant-based products and the benefits that they afford across the life cycle. And then, of course, the core of the organization really is advocacy.

So again, working with our members to identify and address some of the challenges to moving our society to more plant- or bio-based products.

Secon: Why do you think an organization like PBPC is necessary right now?

Bowman: Well, we've seen that companies across the economic spectrum have been taking efforts to improve their sustainability, rethinking their products, rethinking their packaging, rethinking their operation to incorporate more of a focus on sustainability. And I think adoption of more bio-based or plant-based products and materials really offers a path toward that reality. PBPC was established 10 months ago, and we already have almost 60 corporate members.

That quick growth of the membership is really a sign that we're on the right track, and that there really was the need for a forum to bring together like-minded companies that support the use of more sustainable products.

Secon: How is your organization going about getting corporate members? Do they approach you? Do you approach them?

Bowman: I think it's a little bit of both. I think as word about the organization has gotten out, companies have come to us, and are interested in what we're doing and have signed on to participate. And a little bit of us reaching out and keeping an eye out for those companies that are making commitments in this space that we know are already thinking and moving toward more bio-based products, and recognizing that they may be interested in helping us work together to make a shift. And so we sort of have been reaching out to companies from that standpoint. 

Secon: Who are some of the most notable companies right now?

Bowman: They're from NatureWorks, Hemp Industries Association, Cargill and dozens more. The other thing I think is important to note is that aside from our membership, we've also established an executive board that consists of leading environmental organizations, academics and NGOs. And they will play a critical role in making sure that we're maintaining perspective and keeping our focus on the environmental imperative.

That board includes participation from the Environmental Law Institute, Californians Against Waste and some academic institutions as well.

Secon: Can you give some more details about your plans to accomplish some of your goals, from education to policy?

Bowman: In terms of education — so, to expand on that a little bit, we did some polling last year that showed that consumers want to increase their adoption of these types of products. Our polling showed that 56 percent of millennials actively want alternatives to plastics, but at the same time, only 13 percent of them were very familiar with bio-based products. I think PBPC can serve as the educational platform to showcase these products, the benefits that they offer and encourage a shift in consumer purchasing and waste disposal habits, which is all necessary to help move more toward plant-based products.

If you go to our website, we have a pretty robust, ever-growing database of plant-based products. I think there's over 650 products in the database right now. These are products that are already on the market that are plant-based. There's everything from straws and cleaning products to cosmetics and food service items, so we're providing information on the space. We're serving as a forum for gathering and disseminating information about what's going on in this space as far as news, trends and corporate announcements relative to bio-based products, and serving as that sort of platform and forum for discussing that information. 

On the advocacy/policy front, there are a few things that we're focused on. There are certainly challenges to making this sort of transition, as some of those will require really looking closely at our current regulatory system, beginning with composting infrastructure, in order to really change disposal habits.

As we build out our advocacy agenda, research will certainly be a key component of it. There's of course always a need for additional information as we're moving into a more innovative space that is more unknown to folks. So I think there's certainly a need for additional research that can help inform and advance this shift to more bio- and plant-based products.

One of the key pieces I mentioned before is composting infrastructure. The bio-based products are different from traditional plastics in that they are compostable along with food and yard waste. So that of course leads to the creation of compost, which is another value-added product. By having the opportunity to divert these products to composting facilities, that, of course, reduces pressure on already overburdened landfills, reduces plastic pollution, improves water quality and creates decreased greenhouse gas emissions. There's also some job advantages, too, compared to landfills, a 2-to-1 advantage of composting facilities versus landfills. But there's a critical need when it comes to composting infrastructure, and that's one of our priorities is helping to advance investment in composting infrastructure across the country.

We're looking at opportunities at both the federal and state-level to figure out what some opportunities may be to advance the investment in composting infrastructure.

Secon: Switching topics a little bit — a lot of criticism has been leveraged at some bio-based products in the past about how the plants that have been sourced are not also being sustainably farmed. Is that something you're looking to address with your platform?

Bowman: Yeah, I think there's a number of pieces of misinformation out there about bio-based products, and that's something that we've been working to address. We have an accountability blog on our website where we highlight some of the misinformation about bio-based products to really kind of set the record straight on some of these issues. But I think from a broader standpoint, the American agricultural community has a continued commitment to improving its sustainability and its practices, from a broader standpoint.

Secon: Is there anything that you're looking to, with your platform, to help with that measurement and verification?

Bowman: I think some of that's pretty broad. I think our focus right now is on the products themselves, on some of the barriers to getting them to market, the barriers to simply being aware of these products and the environmental benefits that they provide across the lifecycle. And that's I think where we're focused right now.

But again, I go back to making sure that we're getting that check from our advisory board on where we can be improving, what sort of things that we need to be doing to be a credible and a valued organization in helping move this shift to a more bio-based economy.

Secon: Do you have a timeline for when you're looking to build this all out by? I know you all are still kind of at the beginning, and still kind of building.

Bowman: I think work is already underway, and now that I'm on board, I think over the next probably few months, you'll probably be hearing more and more about what we're doing and planning to do.