Why green chemistry is a major driver of product innovation

Methodology

Why green chemistry is a major driver of product innovation

Editor's note: This is a monthly column written by Method, the San Francisco-based company that develops green home cleaning products with a nod towards design. Look for it on the fourth Thursday of each month exclusively on GreenBiz.com. Contributors will include Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan, the founders of Method, along with Drummond Lawson, the company's green giant (aka sustainability director), who wrote this piece.

What would chemicals look like if they were designed in the same way as products or buildings? Could better-designed, greener chemistry help address the health and environmental concerns facing both product developers and companies?

Consider how the chemicals industry was established. Chemists didn’t develop novel materials by imagining awesome, new molecules and then find ways to synthesize them. Instead, many legacy chemicals came into being because they (or their precursors) were waste products from other processes that someone found a use for. Gasoline, for example, was initially a useless waste product of the kerosene refining industry. Cue some enterprising chemists and engineers, and this waste liquid became the basis of an entire industry.

This opportunistic approach to chemical development shows many impressive examples of resourcefulness. But it has also resulted in legions of materials not ideally suited to their applications. Toxicology, environmental compatibility and other materials assessment factors haven’t historically figured into the adoption or approval of new chemistries. The impact of exposure to chemicals that accumulate in people and the environment, disrupt hormonal function, are toxic to environmental systems and deplete limited resources have been well documented by numerous researchers such as Theo Colborn in the landmark book Our Stolen Future.

Imagine if the built environment had evolved in the same way. Instead of buildings and spaces designed and constructed for specific purposes, we’d instead be living and working in whatever shelter resulted from existing activities, without regards to their structural safety or suitability for habitation.

Sound ludicrous? It’s largely how the chemicals industry has evolved.

Photo of plants in test tube provided by fotohunter via Shutterstock

So what would well-designed chemistry look like? Green chemistry is a big part of the answer.

In 2000, chemistry professors Paul Anastas and John Warner wrote a seminal text on the subject. In the book, they define 12 principles of green chemistry. The principles address the design of safer chemicals and auxiliaries, more efficient syntheses, use of renewable feedstocks and design for degradation. These principles are increasingly being applied in industry and academia. As a result, they’re shifting perceptions of what chemistry should be.

One university has made an institutional commitment to integrate these principles into its research and curriculum. The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, founded in 2010 at University of California at Berkeley, is a multi-disciplinary center generating cutting-edge research on the subject. It’s redefining how chemistry is taught at the university and leading dialogue both in industry and policy circles. Research centers like this and others are helping to reinvent how the science is understood and taught to the next generation of chemists.

But researchers aren’t the only one getting in on the action. The chemicals industry has caught on as well. It’s experienced a wave of environmental innovation in recent years. Start-ups and massive industry players alike have been creating novel materials with greatly improved safety and environmental characteristics. From conventional workhorse materials now being synthesized from renewable feedstocks to highly specialized new materials, the range of green chemicals is expanding rapidly.

Method looks at green chemistry as a major driver of product innovation. Our formulation team (the green chefs, as they’re known) is working with a range of suppliers of some amazing new ingredients that deliver entirely new performance characteristics with massively improved footprints.

One example is the high-efficacy solvents ferments from waste wood trimmings and corn stalks. Developed by Segetis in Minnesota, these solvents now power Method bathroom spray and laundry detergent, delivering performance previously impossible for green cleaners. Materials like these fuel our formulation approach.

Instead of making green products by simply removing hazardous conventional chemicals, we can build high-efficacy formulations from the ground up using safe, renewable and environmentally compatible chemicals.

Green chemistry will provide massive opportunities for innovation and new paths to advance corporate sustainability agendas. The development of safer, greener chemicals will yield a wealth of options for product developers in a range of categories.

No longer will there be tradeoffs between performance and sustainability. The reinvention of the chemistry from which everyday goods are made will open new doors for product designers and managers alike, delivering substantially safer, lower impact products.

Design, meet chemistry. Chemistry, meet design.