Companies Get New Tools for Finding Safer Chemicals

OAKLAND, CA —  Making a product more sustainable isn't always as easy as switching to a clearly greener material or ingredient, especially when it comes to chemicals. That's where alternatives assessments come in.

Looking for alternative chemicals is a process that has to take a wide range of issues into consideration, said Bruce LaBelle, chief of the California Department of Toxic Substance Control's Environmental Chemistry Laboratory.

Speaking during a GreenBiz.com webcast yesterday, the third part in the Benign by Design series, LaBelle said assessments need to look at environmental impacts, effects on human health, resource use and performance. 

Alternatives assessments also need to come in early during product development, when designs are being worked out and companies are figuring out specifications for manufacturing, he said.

"When a designer explicitly lists a series of environmental health and resource attributes and then consider those in the design, they are going to make improvements," LaBelle said.

Companies can get a hand from tools designed to help compare alternatives, such as Clean Production Action's Green Screen for Safer Chemicals. The tool, said CPA Science Director Lauren Heine, is based on the EPA's Design for the Environment alternatives assessment method. 

The tool — which has been used by Walmart, HP, Maine, Washington and others — classifies the hazards posed by chemicals and compares them to four benchmarks that require higher and higher levels of safety.

Companies can also run into chemicals assessments through certification programs. ULE 880, the first company-level sustainability standard, includes a section that prioritizes chemicals, ranked based on their hazards and other factors.

In ULE 880, developed by Underwriters Laboratories' UL Environment arm and GreenBiz.com, chemicals that are heavily used are given additional points (meaning they're more hazardous), because chemicals with low hazards that are used in high volumes can pose threats, said Paul Firth, manager of science and research for UL. Chemicals that don't break down in the environment, are carcinogenic or are endocrine disruptors are given additional points, too.

ULE 880 also defines what to take into consideration during an alternatives assessment. The idea, Firth said, is to get companies to start looking at the chemicals they are using more closely and realizing where they can use different ones. 

"Hopefully it will change for the better as you continue to find new alternatives and implement those into your process," he said.

The webcast, "Implementing Green Chemistry by the Use of Alternatives Assessments," was the final installment of the Benign by Design series, preceded by the  "Finding the Right Tools" and "Characterizing and Balancing Risk" webcasts. 

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