How Policy Change Can Spur Green Chemistry

[Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series offering a vision for green chemistry in the United States in 2030. Part 1 defined the vision and Part 2 laid out a broad game plan for change. Today’s post focuses on building blocks for the 2030 green chemistry vision: changes in regulatory policy and examples of past achievements from green chemistry investments.]

Federal regulatory policies need to be strengthened to better drive green chemistry. Just as targeted phase-outs of individual chemicals such as brominated flame retardants and bisphenol-A have hastened the use of replacement materials, broad federal chemical policy reform is necessary to speed chemical transition on a wider scale. Europe’s REACH chemical management program and the creation of priority chemical lists for action in various U.S. states are harbingers of the changes to which chemical manufacturers and their downstream customers will need to adapt. 

The University of California at Berkeley’s Michael Wilson and Megan Schwarzman have characterized the existing federal toxic chemicals law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), as suffering from a data gap (insufficient disclosure of hazards), a safety gap (insufficient tools for government to act against hazardous chemicals), and a technology gap (marginal investment in green chemistry research, development and education).

Both environmental health advocates and industry groups agree that reforming TSCA is in order, but environmental health advocates want to build on regulatory changes in Europe and elsewhere that speed up the transition to safer chemicals, while the chemical industry appears to favor a more protracted approach that will slow the process. Closing the data gap can be especially important in helping green chemical manufacturers differentiate their products in the market place.

On April 15, 2010, Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the “Safe Chemicals Act” to substantially strengthen TSCA. See here for environmental health advocates’ perspective and here for the American Chemistry Council’s chemical industry perspective.

Downstream corporate users of chemicals will be well-served by adding their voice to health advocates’ calls for more rapid government regulation to phase out dangerous chemicals. Downstream corporate users’ core business interests are better aligned with their customers downstream than with the upstream manufacturers of the toxic chemicals in their products. Their public positions on chemical policy reform should similarly align, as discussed here.

Although the existing federal chemical regulatory framework has not itself been a significant driver of green chemistry, the voluntary Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge launched by EPA in 1995 has provided high level recognition of major green chemistry accomplishments.

Judged by independent chemical experts convened by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute, the awards, presented during an annual multiday green chemistry research conference, highlight successes in research, development, and industrial application of new technologies. They are awarded in such categories as academia, small business, alternative synthetic pathways, alternative chemical manufacturing processes, and designing safer chemicals.

For example, the 2003 award for designing safer chemicals was given to Shaw Industries Inc. of Dalton, Ga., one of the largest floor-covering manufacturers in the United States. Shaw won the award for the development of EcoWorx carpet tile. EcoWorx replaces carpets backed with the controversial chemical polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Next Page: Green chemistry awards for Shaw and Pfizer