Biobased Buzz

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

One of the newest products to come out of rural Central Ohio is nearly half soy, but you're more likely to find it in your office supply closet than on the dinner table.

It's an agricultural plastic created by Battelle, funded by the Ohio Soybean Council (OSC) and formed into molded plastic three-ring binders by Marysville-based Univenture. Last year, the binders-made with a 40 percent soy polymer-earned the partners an R&D 100 Award.

Increasingly, soybeans and corn-Ohio's top crops-have a place not just at mealtime, but in ethanol, plastics, ink, paint, cosmetics and cleaning materials. "Anything you can make from [petroleum-derived] oil, you can make from corn and soybeans," says Joe Cornely, senior director of corporate communications for the Ohio Farm Bureau.

According to proponents, biobased products-made of plant, animal, marine or forestry materials-perform as well or better than their conventional counterparts at roughly the same cost, are better for the environment and support agriculture, Ohio's No. 1 industry. The market for such products is growing, led in part by both formal and informal efforts at the federal, state and local levels.

Biopreferred Becomes Law

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 got the ball rolling with the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Federal Biobased Products Procurement Preference Program, now simply called BioPreferred. The effort was expanded by the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008; in October 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to take a number of "green" steps, including buying biobased products when they are readily available, reasonably priced and perform as well as their conventional counterparts. The step was a significant one: Combined, U.S. agencies represent the world's largest procurement operation.

This February, Gov. Ted Strickland signed into law Senate Bill 131, making Ohio the first state in the nation to establish a biopreferred purchasing program. SB 131, which received widespread bipartisan support (only one legislator voted against it), impacts state agencies and state-supported colleges and universities. It mirrors existing "Buy Ohio" provisions, which require state agencies to apply a preference to Ohio bids for supplies and services with the intent of supporting in-state vendors.

SB 131, sponsored by state Sen. Karen Gillmor (R-Tiffin), requires public institutions to give purchasing preference to biobased products when they're available and not cost-prohibitive. Like Buy Ohio, SB 131 permits up to a 5 percent cost premium for such items. The procurement program piggybacks on federal efforts by tapping into the feds' database of products and vendors, saving the state time, money and manpower.

"In these difficult economic times, I was trying to think of what bill could benefit our workforce that would involve no additional spending, and this seems ideal, because the concept is built on our strongest economic sector: agriculture," says Gillmor. "Ohio is fifth in producing biomass from which bioproducts are made."

Within a few months of SB 131's passage, three Central Ohio communities passed biopreferred procurement resolutions of their own. Like their federal and state counterparts, officials in Grove City, Hilliard and Marysville cited concerns about the environment, the cost of petroleum-based products and a desire to support Ohio industry as their motivation.

At the Local Level

Municipalities throughout the nation have had an ongoing conversation about going green. "But it's been difficult to find tangible ways to do that," says Hilliard City Councilman Brett Sciotto.

A May 24 resolution adopting biopreferred purchasing standards formalized Hilliard's commitment and established reporting mechanisms. "It's important to us to support Ohio farming and agriculture to ensure that we're supportive of Ohio jobs, but also just to be more environmentally friendly and reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Sciotto says.

The resolution won the unanimous backing of Hilliard City Council and has been supported by both residents and city staff, says Sciotto. "I feel like the department heads were starting down this road anyway," he says.

Already, the city is testing a biobased asphalt preservation agent against a petroleum-based surface sealant. Known as RePlay, the product is an 88 percent biobased material containing soybean oil derivatives. Dublin-based Ohio Pavement Systems applied a test section on Lacon Road at a discounted cost, says Hilliard Public Service Director Clyde Seidle. Given that such coatings generally have a four- or five-year lifespan, he says, "How it acts and how it works is still in the evaluation phase."

Marysville passed a biopreferred procurement resolution in June. The city is addressing purchases "on a case-by-case basis," says Mayor Christiane Schmenk. She says the spending policy makes sense in the context of other green measures Marysville has incorporated, such as anti-idling policies and in-house recycling programs. "I think success will come in first in little things, and then hopefully in bigger things," she says. "I think it'll end up saving money for our taxpayers."

Grove City Councilman Ted Berry sponsored his community's resolution to adopt a biopreferred spending policy. "It's been something that I've been trying to get to happen for a long, long time," says Berry, who's also director of business development for ATECH, an arm of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State University Extension. ATECH was created to help commercialize discoveries from OSU's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Grove City already had taken steps such as using recycling containers made of recycled materials. "But we hadn't taken that next jump," Berry says.

In the city of Columbus, biobased buys are covered under a more general Environmentally Preferred Purchasing code, says environmental steward Erin Miller. The city code, which predates SB 131, calls for agencies to seek out materials, supplies, equipment, construction and services from "environmentally preferable" bidders when possible. Such bidders must offer a product or service equal or superior to other bidders and are limited to a 5 percent cost premium, which is capped at $20,000.

"Mayor [Michael] Coleman wants the city to lead by example and believes that going green doesn't mean going broke," Miller says. Beyond pursuing environmentally friendly options "because it's the right thing to do," she says, Columbus's green initiatives also save the city money in areas such as improved energy efficiency and water quality. Further, she says, "Spurring the market through our purchasing decisions helps drive down the costs for everybody else."

In late July, Gillmor sent a letter to more than 900 Ohio mayors urging their communities to adopt biopreferred purchasing policies. Members of the Central Ohio Green Pact, a multijurisdictional entity created by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) to support a more sustainable region, may be the most likely to hop on the bandwagon.

"We think it's a great option for our communities to look at as they seek ways to implement the Green Pact principles," says Laura Koprowski, MORPC's director of public and government affairs.

"Communities in Central Ohio are really good about sharing information in this arena and being really open and supportive about [saying], ‘This worked for us, we'll be happy to share it,' " Koprowski says. "And that's great. That's so essential to making green really happen."

Industrial Use and Support

Of course, making green happen requires more than just legislative efforts. Ohio is well-positioned on a key front: farms. According to the Ohio Farm Bureau, the Buckeye State had 75,700 farms and 14.3 million acres of agricultural land as of 2007, the most recent data available. The agricultural industry employs one in seven Ohioans and contributes $93 billion to the state economy, according to the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC).

The OBIC is among the entities working to help farmers and agribusiness take raw material, known as biomass, and convert it into a petroleum substitute. Created in 2005 with an $11.5 million Ohio Third Frontier grant, the OBIC facilitates connections from farms through the manufacturing and sale process, says Stephen Myers, the center's director.

"Ohio has a lot of really exciting projects going on," Myers says. A 2004 Battelle study singled out biobased materials as a key source of innovation for the state's $49 billion polymer industry as well as a means to reduce petroleum dependency.

Soybean production in Ohio and elsewhere "is up dramatically," says Rocky Black, the OSC's director of bioproduct utilization and review. In 2006, there were 120 million tons of soybean oil in industrial use. By 2009 that amount had grown to 180 million tons, and Black expects production to continue rising. Ohio farmers grow soybeans on more than 4 million acres annually; biobased products provide them with a new market.

The OSC spends $2 million to $2.5 million annually for research into plant pathology and new uses for soy. "We're increasing the per-acre yield of soybeans basically every year. And that's with using less and less fertilizers. They're reducing a lot of the inputs, but producing more soybeans," says Jeff Cafmeyer, a Battelle senior research scientist in the advanced materials and process engineering group, part of the national security global business unit.

Battelle's relationship with the OSC dates back around 15 years. Black, whose position was created two years ago, is in part responsible for taking soy-based products and bringing them to market. "Right now, we have one of the most comprehensive networks in the country in Ohio for bioproduct purchasing. The question is, are we going to have the products to fulfill the need?" he says.

One product for which demand already is increasing is soy-based toner. In June, laser printers on the Ohio State University campus were outfitted with a powder developed by the OSC and Battelle. The toner, produced by Mitsubishi and available in recycled-content replacement cartridges, is at least 35 percent biobased. According to OSU, the university is one of the nation's largest users of soy toner.

Growing environmental awareness is driving much of the push for biopreferred products. But in addition to capitalizing on that trend, some biobased items also carry a cost advantage. While the price of agricultural products has remained "relatively constant," Cafmeyer says, those made of fossil fuel fluctuate with the price of oil.

Another catalyst: retail behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s push for its suppliers to adopt environmentally sustainable packaging. The company, which aims to reduce packaging volume 5 percent by 2013, is scoring suppliers' packaging on criteria such as carbon dioxide emissions, recycled content, renewable energy, recovery value and innovation.

Wal-Mart's announcement, made in 2006, has resonated with suppliers, says Michele Cole, president of Univenture. "I think we've seen things move along faster in the last two years than in the last 10. And that's encouraging," she says. "I noticed we started getting a lot more interest at that time. When you get a giant like them making a statement like that, then everybody better get in line. It really, I think, set some things in motion."

Univenture, a document and media packaging inventor and manufacturer, earned national recognition for its efforts in June 2009. The company's polylactic acid name badge holders and CD/DVD sleeves were named the BioPreferred Designated Items of the Month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture BioPreferred program. The products are made of cornstarch and are renewable, recyclable and compostable.

‘Food vs. Fuel'

Though proponents tout the many benefits of biobased products, not everyone is ready to abandon oil in favor of corn and soy.

Critics are concerned that using crops to create petroleum substitutes will negatively impact the food supply-a dilemma dubbed "food vs. fuel." They point to a 2008 World Bank policy research working paper that cited the increase in U.S. and European biofuels production as the most important factor in the rapid rise of internationally traded food prices since 2002.

The Ohio Farm Bureau has heard similar concerns. "But that's not a very accurate portrayal," Cornely says. In reality, the pricing equation is far more complex. "When you look at the majority of foods we buy in the grocery store, a very small proportion of that cost is directly attributable to the cost of the farm commodity-typically less than 20 percent," Cornely says. "Does it have an impact? Yes, but the impact is relatively minor. What really drives food prices is the cost of energy in growing, transport, processing, packaging, retailing and cooking. Every step is extremely energy-sensitive.

"There is a legitimate discussion going on within farm circles on the impact of the livestock industry," says Cornely. That's because the corn used to make ethanol is field corn, which is fed to animals, rather than the sweet corn consumed by people.

"The marketplace works, and market forces will find that equilibrium where all parties can benefit. It's not going to come without some bumping and shaking along the way, but we can get there. Farmers are resilient, and they can adapt. And even in the case of ethanol, corn ground to make the stuff retains some of its food value and can still be used as livestock feed," Cornely says. "If we do this right, it'll benefit farmers and consumers. It will be good for the economy, it will be good for agriculture, it will be good for energy needs, and it will be good for the environment. If we make wise decisions, this could be a win-win."

In Black's view, the issue is a simple matter of supply and demand. As demand for, and production of, a product like soybean oil rises, there will be more soy protein available for feed and other uses, such as lubricants, paints, stains, degreasers and foam-pretty much anything that petroleum can create, he says.

Spreading the Word

Of course, it's not enough for a product to be inexpensive and environmentally friendly. It also has to work. "If you tell me, ‘You can buy a bar of soap for $1 and it gets your hands clean,' or I can get one for 50 cents and it's soy, but it might not get my hands clean, I'm going to spend that buck," says Dave Gobey, ATECH director of marketing.

An August 2009 OSC survey found nearly 88 percent of Ohio consumers would purchase a bioproduct as long as it performed as well as or better than a conventional product. In addition, 60 percent were willing to pay up to 10 percent more for such items.

Chad Hummell, manager of government sales at Univenture, says the survey is encouraging. "If it's something that they want to buy, that they find to be as good as what they're buying from a non-biobased [company], it seems like a no-brainer-and that's why SB 131 got so much support. It's not like forcing it down someone's throat," he says.

Berry says support for biobased products will grow rapidly. "Until fairly recently, oil has been available and affordable. We are watching a paradigm shift in consumer behavior. Consumers now are demanding alternatives to oil, toxic products, etc. at a time when the feedstocks for those items are increasingly scarce and expensive. We're still at the beginning of the revolution. But make no mistake-a green revolution is under way."

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the November 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.