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Earth Day
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“End Plastic Pollution”

On Sunday, April 22, the Nation celebrates its 48th Earth Day. The theme for this year is End Plastic Pollution.  As employees for the USDA’s principal in-house research agency, Earth Day has special meaning.  While the mission of ARS is to conduct research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority, we must keep in mind that these efforts must be done in an environmentally sound fashion.  As Senator G. Nelson (founder of Earth Day) stated “The US economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around”.  We are fortunate that all ARS stakeholders, whether they be commodity groups, US citizens, industrial partners, or Federal employees, understand that the development of biobased biodegradable products will play an important role in the future success of the US economy and society.  Products that are not coupled with a recycling program to allow biobased articles to be reprocessed miss the point of Earth Day.  Finally, efforts must be employed to develop an infrastructure that will allow the proper disposition of non-recyclable materials.  Having a goal of 100% recycling is worth striving for, but there must be a method to ensure that waste plastic or bioplastics are disposed of in a fashion that will not harm the environment.

One example of this type of research where the entire lifecycle of a process is scrutinized can be found in work being carried out by ARS scientists at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, Illinois. For over 30 years, efforts have been put forth to replace non-renewable materials in an environmentally sound fashion.  Whether the target is the production of bioplastics, biofuels, or novel bioproducts, these researchers have led the way.

  1. Replacement of petroleum based plastics – Research involving the use of renewable polymers, such as cornstarch, corn / soy protein and their blends, have been of value in the development of the bioplastics industry.  The use of bacterial polymers, such as polyhydroxyalkonates or alternan oligosaccharides, have resulted in improved highly biodegradable polymers and thickeners.
  2. Production of biofuels – Much of the research in developing biodiesel was carried out within ARS. Current efforts are centered on developing new plant varieties that have high oil content but grow over the winter to allow two crops to be grown on the farmland.  In addition, efforts have been put forth on improving the production of bioethanol, whether that be accomplished by addressing microbial contamination or the production of valued co-products during fermentation.
  3. New bioproducts – The development of higher value products such as soybean oil based sunscreen, low glycemic index sweeteners, surfactants, lubricants and hydrophobic compounds illustrate the breadth of research performed by ARS to meet the long-term needs of the US in an environmentally sound fashion.

Additional information regarding Earth Day is available at