ANALYSIS: USDA BioPreferred Biobased Product Public Forum on Life Cycle Assessments: Part 1

Dispatch from SSC Consultant, Lorre Walker

This series of blog posts looks at the USDA’s proposed voluntary biobased product labeling and the BioPreferred program. In four parts, it summarizes the presentations given at the USDA’s Life Cycle Assessment Public Meeting on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.

As SSC gets more involved in product and packaging environmental assessments, life cycle assessments (LCA), etc., I decided to attend the USDA’s public forum on its BioPreferred Program and the proposed voluntary biobased product labeling program. BioPreferred is a Federal program that increases the purchase and use of biobased products made from biological or renewable agricultural materials. The program includes a preferred procurement program for Federal agencies and a voluntary labeling program for the broad scale consumer marketing of biobased products. Biobased products are commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are composed, in whole or in significant part, of biological products.

The agenda for the public forum, which was attended by approximately 30 people onsite and 70 participating online, included four presentations, each one related to the environmental impacts of biobased products, how best to measure them, what implications they will or should have for the labeling program, and the eco-labeling environment. The following is a very brief summary of each presentation and the issues surrounding them.

Issue: The proposed BioPreferred label will indicate that the product meets or exceeds USDA standard for the amounts of biobased content—and content alone. It is not intended to indicate any environmental or social impacts or benefits associated with the product. However, there will be implied meanings associated with the label due the public perception that eco-labels indicate eco-friendly. Therefore, does the USDA have a responsibility to include environmental and social criteria and in the analysis of the product and include the data on the label?

BEES and the current role of environmental assessment in BioPreferred, Dr. Marvin Duncan, USDA

  • BEES – Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability. BEES measures the environmental performance of products by using the internationally-standardized and science-based life-cycle assessment approach specified in ISO 14040 standards. All stages in the life of a product are analyzed: raw material acquisition, manufacture, transportation, installation, use, and recycling and waste management. Economic performance is measured using the ASTM standard life-cycle cost method, which covers the costs of initial investment, replacement, operation, maintenance and repair, and disposal. See BEES Scores for USDA for an overview of the BEES scoring system and its use in the BioPreferred context.
  • Bio-based products are rarely 100% biobased.
  • ASTM Standard 6866 measures biobased carbon as a percentage of total weight of organic carbon, but does not measure environmental impacts.
  • BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) and ASTM 7075 provide measurement on 12 environmental and public health indicators:
    • Global warming
    • Acidification
    • Criteria air pollutants
    • Ecological toxicity
    • Eutrophication
    • Fossil fuel depletion
    • Habitat alteration
    • Human health
    • Indoor air
    • Ozone depletion
    • Smog
    • Water intake
  • By completing an environmental footprint or LCA and by making a comparison of performance characteristics, it can be determined if the biobased product is better than a fossil-energy based one.
  • Is higher biobased content always better?

    • No, it may be worse – determined by the LCA.
    • Increased biobased content often degrades product performance.
    • Environmental footprint and product performance are much more important drivers of product selection.

Conclusion: I think the general consensus at the meeting was “Yes”, the USDA has an obligation to provide environmental impact data about the product on the label to match consumer expectations. A USDA representative indicated that the label will more than likely have content describing exactly what the label means…instead of using just a logo.


All-in-all, this was a fascinating look at the world of eco-labeling, the environmental impacts of biobased products, and a debate between LCAs and carbon footprinting…and how it all affects the decisions surrounding one organization’s proposed labeling program. I was particularly interested in the LCA debate and the different types of LCAs.

To continue the discussion on the SSC Consultant Discussion Board, click here.

SSC is currently helping several of our clients to deal with third-party certifications and product and packaging LCAs as a result of Walmart’s sustainability requirements and other stakeholder pressures. For information about our products and services in this area, click here or contact us at