A Formula for Building a Green Chemistry Future

A Formula for Building a Green Chemistry Future

The U.S. government, through its decade-long $12 billion investment in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, has helped throw nanomaterial innovation into overdrive. By comparison, green chemistry programs are still running in first gear.

For example, Congress has failed repeatedly since 2004 to enact a much smaller “Green Chemistry Research and Development Program Act.”

The green chemistry legislation would have authorized a $165 million, three-year program to underwrite green chemistry innovations, collect and disseminate pertinent information, and systematically identify barriers to the commercialization of green chemistry.

Other than the U.S. EPA’s modest green chemistry and Design for Environment efforts and some research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. federal government has not invested in green chemistry in a meaningfully focused manner.

This post, Part 1 of a four-part series, defines and offers an ambitious vision for green chemistry in the United States and describes metrics for measuring progress. Parts 2, 3, and 4 sketch a game plan for realizing the vision and identify green chemistry and related biomimicry initiatives representative of the types of activities that should be scaled up and replicated. Green chemistry and biomimicry are powerful tools for reducing the toxic, energy and waste components of companies’ environmental footprint.

The case for increased, organized, public and private sector investment in green chemistry is compelling, especially to benefit consumer-facing companies and their suppliers.

In reducing their toxic footprint -- the toxicity associated with chemicals used and generated in products across their lifecycle -- companies can:

  • Address rising consumer concerns about exposures to toxic chemicals in their daily lives,
  • Lower the overhead costs of government-required reporting on regulated hazardous wastes,
  • Contribute to employee health,
  • Reduce reputational, financial and litigation risks stemming from exposes of acute and chronic poisonings associated with their manufacturing supply chain and disposal of their products, and
  • Develop a leadership position in international markets such as the European Union where regulation of chemicals in consumer products has outpaced national regulation in the United States.

Manufacturers can realize enormous savings from using green chemicals and chemical processes that require less energy and generate less waste. Inherently safer chemicals and processes also reduce risks of bulk transportation and industrial site accidents and, in this post 9/11 world, lower risks from terrorist strikes.

What’s needed is an aspirational vision and game plan for driving the market for green chemistry, integrating both public and private sector efforts.

Here’s a vision that offers four Big Hairy Audacious Goals for the year 2030:

  • For multi-line retailers and their suppliers: Toxicity warning labels are not needed for products in Walmart, Target, Costco and other multi-line retail stores.
  • For upstream chemical producers and manufacturers: Chemical innovations are driven primarily by biomimicry -- companies have learned from nature how to produce new materials in an energy-efficient way without relying on high temperatures and pressures and with de minimus waste generation. In common industrial and consumer applications, new materials based on sustainably sourced biomaterials have replaced petroleum-based petrochemicals, particularly those substances of especially high concern such as endocrine disruptors, persistent, bioaccumulative toxicants and carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants.
  • For food processing and agricultural supply chains: Bio-based integrated pest management, reduced risk pesticides, and new agricultural varieties have replaced the dominant, chemical-intensive agricultural production model of the last several decades.
  • And for society as a whole: “Green” has been removed from “green chemistry” -- green chemistry principles and methods have been mainstreamed and are synonymous with chemistry, so much so that “benign” rather than “toxic” most commonly characterizes the word “chemical.”

So what exactly is green chemistry?

The “Green Chemistry Research and Development Act” defines it as “chemistry and chemical engineering to design chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances while producing high quality products through safe and efficient manufacturing processes.”

The term green chemistry emerged in the United States in the 1990s. Details of its history can be found here.

Chemists Paul Anastas and John Warner produced the principal publications articulating the concept and its applications. The 12 principles of green chemistry developed by Anastas and Warner include such ideas as:

  • Preventing waste is better than cleaning it up afterwards,
  • Design chemicals explicitly to minimize toxicity to human health and the environment,
  • Minimize energy use,
  • Use renewable rather than depleting feedstocks,
  • Use inherently safer chemistry for accident protection, and
  • Design chemicals to degrade after use.

Twelve principles of green engineering developed by Anastas and Yale Professor Julie Zimmerman complement the 12 principles of green chemistry. Metrics will be necessary to assess progress. Analytical tools have been developed in recent years that compare the toxicity of chemicals (for example, GreenWERCs, GreenList and The Green Screen for Safer Chemicals) and analyze lifecycle impacts. These are discussed in greater detail here.

GreenWERCS, originally developed for Walmart to screen and compare the toxicity of suppliers’ products, has now been made available for use by chemical manufacturers. Metrics also have been developed for specific sectors, such as the PHAROS framework for building materials and the Materials Assessment Strategy for the automotive sector. Numerous certification programs, most notably Green Seal and EcoLogic, attest to products achieving best in class green status, and are periodically tightened as the bar is raised for “best in class.”

The iSustain Green Chemistry Index  is a noteworthy new metric. iSustain is intended to measure products and processes based on the 12 principles of green chemistry. Announced in March 2010, iSustain is an online tool co-developed by the nonprofit Beyond Benign Foundation founded by John Warner, a software company and a specialty chemicals company. iSustain allows users to generate scenarios by entering information on the materials that go into making a chemical or product, including solvents and catalysts. It also provides information on process outputs, such as waste water and chemicals. It takes into account additional principles such as energy efficiency and biodegradability. The tool allows users to develop “what if” scenarios that assist in process and product reformulation.

New agricultural metrics are also being developed that can help assess progress in moving towards more bio-intensive integrated pest management.

The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops is a multi-stakeholder initiative to develop a system for measuring sustainable performance throughout the specialty crop supply chain. The project seeks to offer a suite of outcomes-based metrics to enable operators at any point along the supply chain to benchmark, compare, and communicate their own performance.

{related_content}Similarly, the PRiME Pesticide Risk Mitigation Engine, now being beta-tested, is an online tool that will allow ranking of pesticide products for impacts on soil, water and air quality, avian and aquatic life, beneficial organisms, and worker and consumer health and safety. This tool will permit those in the agricultural supply chain and regulatory professionals to compare different pest management scenarios for any commodity, select options with the fewest potential environmental and health hazards, and identify mitigation options for the products and uses selected.

Look for Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this series next week on GreenBiz.com

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org. The author is engaged with numerous organizations and processes discussed above; mention of commercial products and services should not be construed as endorsement. This article has benefited from comments provided by colleagues working on toxicity reduction. Portions are reprinted with permission from the author’s Green Chemistry article in Berkshire Publishing Group’s Encyclopedia of Sustainability.

Top image CC licensed by Flickr user skycaptaintwo. Inset images CC licensed by Flickr users BruceTurner and Kapungo.