The Big Picture
A biobased economy is rapidly taking root, with massive investments being made by companies in a wide range of sectors to produce products or use materials derived from plants instead of petrochemicals. The growing success of biobased products can be traced to a small army of companies, activists, scientists, and others who for years have been laying the groundwork.
This emerging wave of products and materials aligns with a variety of environmental and economic trends. Biobased products have the potential to give productive life to the millions of tons of agricultural waste that currently is burned or landfilled -- and to boost the agricultural sector, especially for the millions of small-scale farmers in both developed and developing countries. As alternatives to products derived from wood-fiber or petroleum, biobased products may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving trees and oil for purposes for which there are not yet substitutes.
- Forestry and pulp and paper companies, who are seeing biobased products increasingly substituting for conventional tree-based ones.
- Chemical manufacturers, who are developing alternatives to petroleum-based solvents and other petrochemicals.
- The construction sector, which has a growing number of biobased building materials at its command.
- Plastics manufacturers, which are developing new materials made from plant fibers.
- Environmental cleanup companies, which are using plants' natural ability to pull heavy metals and other toxins from the soil, breaking them down into less-harmful components, at hundreds of toxic sites.
Getting Down to Business
New biobased developments seem to emerge weekly, promising products and materials that boast admirable performance characteristics while being safer for both people and the environment. A sampling:
- Ford Motor Co. contracted with Kafus Environmental Industries in 1999 to develop and produce natural-fiber composites for use in automobile interiors.
- Crane & Co. was awarded a contract to provide the U.S. Treasury with "tree-free" currency paper made from 75% recovered cotton and 25% flax.
- Producers Renewable Products, a small company created by a group of Midwest farmers, sells a line of biobased cleaning products: a glass and surface cleaner, an all-purpose cleaner, a tub and tile cleaner, and a deodorizing pine cleaner, among others.
Biobased products offer a variety of benefits to companies. Among them:
- Reduced emissions. Biobased products that reduce reliance on petrochemicals mean fewer emissions into the air and water, potentially lessening the environmental liability of the user.
- Reduced health impacts. Most biobased chemicals and solvents emit fewer toxic fumes that can harm workers and those living near facilities, potentially cutting health claims or insurance premiums.
- Reduced costs. Because they require less protective equipment and cleanup, biobased products may reduce operating costs.
- Increased societal benefits. Biobased products made from agricultural stock can provide income to small-scale farmers while reducing the environmental impacts of burning or otherwise disposing of agricultural waste.
- Increased environmental benefits. These include saving forests, minimizing emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases associated with climate change, and reducing reliance on petroleum and other fossil fuels.
Biobased products are not suitable for every need and may have other downsides, including:
- Increased costs. Some biobased products may carry a premium price, largely because they are made in smaller quantities than conventional products.
- Specification barriers. Companies manufacturing products with military or other detailed specifications may not be able to substitute biobased products. Also, building codes may not permit the use of some biobased products.
- Incompatibility. Biobased products may not be compatible with existing machines or processes and their use could have impacts up and down the manufacturing line.
- Availability. Some biobased products may not yet be available in reliable quantities for large-scale use.
Companies considering biobased products should weigh the following:
- Identify potential uses. Identify biobased products that may be suitable for use in your company. Obtain samples, spec sheets, and other information about their formulation and use. If possible, obtain references of other customers, ideally those in companies similar to yours.
- Involve others. Discuss potential products with others who will be affected by their use, such as those in R&D, product design, manufacturing operations, facility management, marketing, and sales. Discuss their concerns and seek to address them through additional research with product manufacturers and others in your industry.
- Innovate. Determine if there are ways to overcome barriers to the use of biobased products by redesigning products or systems in a way that may provide additional benefits: reduced costs, reduced toxic liability, improved quality, increased customer satisfaction, and the like.
- Experiment. If it is not possible or desirable to switch entirely to a biobased product, determine whether there are opportunities to create small-scale tests that can help determine a product's suitability and reliability in your operation. That can help build confidence and credibility and establish a business case for making a larger-scale shift to biobased products.
- Carbohydrate Economy Clearinghouse (612-379-3815), a program of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is a one-stop shop for news and information on biobased products.
- New Uses Council , a nonprofit group dedicated to commercializing "new industrial, energy, and nonfood consumer uses of renewable agricultural, forestry, and livestock products."
- Biobased Industrial Products: Priorities for Research and Commercialization by Committee on Biobased Industrial Products, National Research Council, this book outlines the benefits of biobased industrial materials over the petroleum-based products widely in use today. From necessary raw materials to processing technologies to products currently on the market, the book offers decision-makers the information they need to make the switch to biobased.
The Bottom Line
There are enormous opportunities with biobased products for companies to impact the so-called "triple bottom line," by improving operations while benefiting both people and the environment. Early adapters may gain an advantage by gaining experience with these products while locking in still-limited supplies.