A Game Plan for Accelerating Green Chemistry

[Editor’s note: Part 1 of this four-part series offered a 2030 green chemistry vision for the U.S. Today, Part 2 lays out a game plan for realizing the vision, focusing on sectoral and geographic approaches, sharing innovations and changes in corporate management structure.]

The game plan for realizing the vision requires a collaborative, multi-pronged investment, policy, and education push, built on both separate public and private sector initiatives and public/private partnerships.

These can be organized sectorally, aggregating downstream user needs, mobilizing  and aligning pools of capital (e.g., cleantech venture capital, joint venture investments, government grants and procurement incentives, and mission-related investments by philanthropic foundations), and using these to foster chemical innovation by start-up companies and academia and to encourage appropriate changes at existing well-capitalized companies.

Sectoral initiatives can include, for example, cosmetics and personal care products, home and institutional cleaning products, apparel, dyes and coatings, automotive, electronics, health care, construction, pharmaceuticals, schools, packaging and agriculture. One such sectoral model is provided by the Pharmaceutical Roundtable, described in more detail here, through which pharmaceutical companies pool resources to fund research on less hazardous and wasteful manufacturing processes. A similar formulators roundtable has been established for companies involved in formulating cleaning and personal care products.

The national green chemistry push will also need a “green chemical commons” where new developments are shared, just as food processors share breakthroughs in food safety methods. The commons should be structured to foster not only free sharing, but also to accommodate the financial benefits and competitive advantages that individual companies gain from chemical innovations.

Green Xchange
is a possible model. Green XChange, an Internet-based marketplace to share intellectual property, was unveiled at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The system allows those contributing intellectual property to decide what licensing approach to take. Nike is sharing more than 400 of its patents, such as its environmentally-preferred rubber that contains 96 percent fewer toxicants than the company’s original rubber formulation.

Even while seeking sectoral and cross-sectoral collaborations, companies must get their own houses in order to accomplish green chemistry objectives.

For example, Pfizer has been a green chemistry pioneer among pharmaceutical companies. The company has recognized the importance of thoroughly integrating green chemistry concerns throughout its management structure, from research to scale-up through to manufacturing. Pfizer has a full-time green chemistry leader with companywide responsibility and a corporate green chemistry policy and steering committee responsible for its strategic plan, communications, policy making and performance monitoring. Pfizer also has site-level green chemistry teams developing management objectives and providing incentives to staff.

Old-line chemical companies will need to innovate … or fade away.

Accumulating business-to-business and consumer demand for greener chemicals, sharp fluctuations in the price of fossil fuels from which many chemicals are made, and the lifecycle environmental burdens of fossil fuel-based chemicals, among other factors, require that traditional companies innovate towards lower toxicity, bio-based chemicals or lose market share. The more married old-line chemical companies are to their most toxic traditional chemicals, the more they resemble the apocryphal frog in a pot of water who, as the heat slowly rises to the boiling point, fails to appreciate he’s about to be scalded to death.

While there are promising signs of greener chemicals at long-established chemical companies, some of these same companies understandably feel a strong temptation to defend from regulation existing investments in old-line chemicals.

For example, while Dow Chemical Company has been introducing bio-based materials and was recognized with a Michigan governor’s green chemistry award, its Dow AgroSciences LLC subsidiary launched an arbitration claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement seeking $2 million in damages because the Province of Quebec had banned the cosmetic use of lawn pesticides including Dow’s chemical 2,4-D. Quebec is one of several provinces to have adopted such cosmetic bans, along with about 100 Canadian municipalities.

Next Page: Green Chemistry in California, Maine and Michigan