Countless consumer products today are made with oil-based chemicals, creating an environmental burden throughout their entire life cycle. But one day soon those chemicals will be grown from organic feedstock instead. Here’s why it matters.
Biosourced. Biobased. Bioengineered. Renewable. Recycled. Recyclable. The re- and bio- prefixes are all the rage in sustainability-speak right now—a hopeful development, to be sure. But with so many terms to keep track of, how do we as consumers know we’re making the best possible purchase decisions from a sustainability standpoint?
Here’s the cheat sheet: “re” is mostly about where our consumer products go after we’re done with them, and “bio” is mostly about where those products come from. Much of the sustainability conversation right now focuses on the “re” — you know, making sure we don’t overburden our landfills with chemically derived goods that basically last forever.
But what if we weren’t making those kinds of products to begin with? What if we could “grow” the building blocks of polyester or plastic, rather than relying on petrochemicals? Then we could simply compost our old tennis shoes, coffee pods, or shopping bags, much like last night’s table scraps.
That’s more science than science fiction, according to a company called Genomatica, so Cause Consumer felt obligated to find out more.
Birthing Better Consumer Products
Founded in 1998, Genomatica develops and licenses manufacturing processes that brands have adopted to essentially eliminate synthetic, long-chain chemicals from their products and manufacturing processes. I asked Steve Weiss, who leads Genomatica’s marketing, for help in understanding biotechnology for the ambitious intervention that it is.
In plain terms, Genomatica tries to single out the synthetic stuff that’s most often found in our consumer goods — nylon or polyester, for instance — and then make a biobased version to replace the synthetic one.
“People have no idea where things come from. Some people never really ask the question,” Weiss said. Throughout our conversation, Weiss highlighted a general theme of each chemical Genomatica tries to reinvent with a biobased alternative: identify the ones that are most widely used.
The ultimate goal is to pinpoint the chemicals that are most ubiquitous across consumer products, and eliminate the need for them by creating an alternative that’s renewable, and often higher-performing. The result? Wider biobased adoption and fewer consumers left to guess whether they’ve made the most sustainable choice.
“It’s a huge opportunity to still give people all the products they know and love with a better beginning of life story.”
The “beginning of life” story is a notable shift from a popular aim of sustainable manufacturing, which focuses largely on the “end of life” story of products—for example, whether they’re recyclable. Ideally, Weiss says, products have both positive beginning and end of life stories that consumers can easily understand.
During our phone conversation, I asked Weiss to call out a number of everyday things that are petroleum-based. It wasn’t difficult, because most homes are hotbeds for petroleum-based material of all shapes, sizes, and functions. “Just about every object you can touch—if it’s not made of wood or leather or metal—is something that has been made from some constituent chemicals, the [overwhelming] majority of which are made from non-renewable fossil fuels.”
The exercise quickly illustrated just how many of the things we use in our everyday lives could be recreated with biobased alternatives. That’s why one of Genomatica’s most recent milestones, the production of a renewably-sourced version of nylon-6, is so consequential.
Better Nylon, Better Planet
For 80 years now, oil-based nylon has been a staple in consumer goods from tennis shoes to tights to toothbrushes. Manufacturing traditional nylon creates an estimated 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, and nylon products can last 30-plus years in a landfill once we throw them out.
So, from manufacturing through disposal, the potential of biobased nylon underscores the scale and impact of Genomatica’s work. And that’s just one chemical — the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As other petrochemicals get replaced by bioengineered alternatives, the environmental benefits continue to grow exponentially.
Despite the vast promise of bioengineering, I’m struck by how tightly focused Genomatica’s approach is—precise and deliberate, devoid of hype or proselytization. Weiss, for instance, emphasized that developing a biobased counterpart for any one chemical is a long journey, often spanning multiple years.
But even with that sprawling timeline in mind, the research still feels wildly visionary because the goal of a circular economy, where everything we manufacture and consume is biobased, still feels like a pipedream to many.
There’s a word in Genomatica’s core purpose statement that speaks to both the hyper-visionary and hyper-disciplined aspects of their ethos: Irresistible. As in, they see the transition to sustainable materials as irresistible, an inevitable corner that we’ll have to round. And they feel responsible for pushing us closer toward what our reality should be, before it’s no longer a choice but an urgent necessity.
At its best, biotechnology has the power to create chemicals and processes that revolutionize almost all types of consumer goods. Once there’s broad adoption, biobased will just be the norm, and we all can rest assured that things like crude oil are no longer in the carpets on our floors, the paint on our walls, the clothes on our backs, the socks on our feet, the mobile devices in our pockets….okay, you get the picture.
While Genomatica keeps pushing toward that “irresistible” reality, incrementally, you can visit their Products page to see who’s already adopted their biotech solutions.
Did you know that, in addition to the Certified Organic label for food, the USDA also has a Certified Biobased Product label? Visit biopreferred.gov to learn more about how to identify biobased options for everyday products.