Soy Is Not Just for Tofu Anymore

by | Jun 13, 2012

In recent years, shoppers visiting hardware stores, especially those that sell greener or more sustainable products have noticed something they might not have expected. More and more building products are being made with soy or soy by-products. Soy ingredients, including soy resins, can be found in the backings of carpets, the cushions used in chairs and sofas, insulating materials, cleaning products, building materials, plastic panels, and probably most notably, waterless urinals. Soy is now also found in lubricants, adhesives, and paints.

Why is soy being finding its way into many more environmentally friendly products?

The answer is simple. When soy, a renewable resource, is used as a substitute for petrochemicals, those products have far less impact on the environment. In fact, soy releases little or no volatile organic compounds, allowing paint and adhesive manufacturers to make their products more environmentally responsible. Further, when used in adhesives soy can replace formaldehyde, which is now classified by the International Agency for Cancer Research as a carcinogen.

Soy’s History

Today, soy is one of the leading crops grown in China, Japan, and Korea. However, it is also harvested in many countries around the world and can grow surprisingly well in many different climates. It was first introduced in the United States in Savannah, Georgia, back in the late 1700s by a sailor who had just visited China. It now grows in 28 states. In Asia, it has historically been used as a food source, while in the US the main interest in soy, at least for most of its history, was as a type of fertilizer.

This all changed in the 1930s. Henry Ford believed soy had considerable potential in the manufacturing of cars and other products and could be cost effective as well. In the early part of that decade, during the worst years of the Depression, Ford was so impressed with soy that he invested $1.25 million into soy research, the equivalent of more than $21 million today and considered a very large sum for any type of scientific research at that time.

Sure enough, by the late 1930s, Ford was using soy ingredients in several parts of Ford automobiles. This included the paint, bumpers, even shock absorbers and door panels. In time, approximately two bushels of soy, roughly 120 pounds, were used in every Ford car manufactured. This development spurred other manufacturers of the day to investigate how they could use soy in their own products and soon they found a number of uses for soy as well.

Soy: The New Oil?

Quietly yet confidently, soy is beginning to play an ever larger role in how we build and operate facilities. Technologies have advanced so that many manufacturers are replacing petrochemicals in their products with soy and soy by-products and achieving satisfactory results. In fact, some believe soy may take significant marketshare away from petrochemicals because of its high oil content, which is 18 percent more than any other legume except peanuts. Already soy-based solvents and lubricants — for example, WD-40 — are available that appear to perform as well as conventional oil-based lubricants.

To further the research and development of soy uses, farmers that grow soy in the United States have banded together to create an R&D organization called the United Soybean Board (USB). The USB focuses on five target areas: adhesives, coatings and printing inks, lubricants, plastics, and solvents, all of which are used in commercial facilities.

The USB is made up of more than 600,000 US growers with each contributing a small percentage of its sales of soy to fund the organization and its research activities. Further, the federal government is now offering incentives for the use of all kinds of biobased products, including those that use soy, to offset the rising costs of raw materials.

Many manufacturers appear to be watching closely what develops from soy research. “We’ve definitely seen a heightened awareness and interest among different companies . . . as they get more and more involved with green initiatives,” says Darren Jarboe with the Center for Crops Utilization and Research at Iowa State University. Because of the research, some companies have recently introduced soy-based water repellants, wood sealers, and countertop materials for both home and commercial use, all replacing petrochemicals with soy.


Soy’s environmental benefits create a host of opportunities for soy-based products to be used in both commercial and residential settings. However, the future success of these products may center on costs, which admittedly are increasing.

One problem: soy does require a lot of water to grow and water is getting more and more costly in most areas of the world. In addition to the actual costs to grow soymeal, the growing demand for soy has also caused market prices to rise. The funds being poured into soy technology development and research is also a contributor, and several government entities, both state and federal, have instituted new rules and regulations on growing and using soy that have, as a consequence, added costs to each bushel.

However, the rising costs of soy may be small when compared to the rising costs anticipated for imported oil. And like other innovations, as the market grows in the years ahead for soy-based products, many of these costs are expected to decline as new technologies emerge, making soy an even more valuable, green, and sustainable alternative to petrochemicals.

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc, Vista, Calif. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind.

Stay Informed

Get E+E Leader Articles delivered via Newsletter right to your inbox!

Share This