Corn is used in the manufacture of cutlery, paper products and other items in the BioPreferred program. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)
An Agriculture Department program that helps agencies buy environmentally friendly products made from biological or agricultural materials suffered a setback in January when Congress failed to extend funding that would allow it to test new products.
And that has some contractors frustrated.
“We hope to include our new product because we would like to make it easy for government agencies to pick it out of a catalog and go with it,” said James Carter, business and marketing strategist for EOS Remediation of Raleigh, N.C., which produces solutions to decontaminate water and soil.
The company, which has six products in the BioPreferred program’s catalog, wants to add an environmentally friendly oil that will help decontaminate soil and groundwater. Agencies, such as the Energy and Defense departments, could use it to clean up contaminated installations.
But the BioPreferred program, which traditionally receives about $3 million in funding annually to certify new products, according to USDA, did not receive any of that funding. The agency funds oversight of the program and maintenance of the product catalog through a separate administrative budget.
USDA plans to build a new website for the BioPreferred program and designate eight new product categories by the end of June to add to its catalog of roughly 9,000 items across 86 categories. These include equipment cleaners, eating utensils and packaging materials.
Because of budget cuts, it is no longer able to test new products and officially label them as a “USDA Certified Biobased Product,” a designation many companies strive for. Only about 10 percent of BioPreferred products carry that label.
Bill Gregory, a founding partner at Gregory and Associates, which helps clients get listed in the BioPreferred Program, said the lapse in funding is hurting contractors trying to develop environmentally friendly products — which he says are mostly small businesses.
“These contractors are losing business right now because the products can’t be designated,” Gregory said. Agencies must give preference to buying bio-based products whenever possible.
Elizabeth Johnson, associate at Kelley, Drye and Warren, a law firm that helps contractors competefor government business, said that as companies and agencies expand their “green” purchasing, the BioPreferred Program will become more relevant than ever.
“Anything that gives the contractor a leg up over the competition is seen as really desirable,” Johnson said.
She said the funding lapse could prevent the program from growing and playing a bigger role in federal purchasing.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed a farm bill May 14 that would restore the program’s funding through 2018 — an important reason to pass it as quickly as possible, according to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
“The federal BioPreferred program creates new market opportunities for Ohio farmers, while strengthening Ohio’s growing bio-based industry and creating jobs throughout our state,” Brown said in a statement. The Senate is expected to pass the legislation. The Senate passed similar legislation last year but the House did not vote on it.
The Senate legislation also would expand the labeling program to include wood and paper products.
American Wood Council President and CEO Robert Glowinski said the legislation would remove the limitation on wood and paper products from the BioPreferred program.
“Wood products by nature are bio-based and should be eligible to compete on a level playing field with other bio-based products, as was originally intended by the law,” Glowinski said.