4 steps for companies on the path to chemical safety

On the road to safer chemicals, it's important to have a vision and goals, but while it may be easy to set your destination, the biggest challenge can be how to start your journey.

To give a boost to companies just starting to think about chemicals -- as well as those already on their way -- BizNGO has released "The Guide to Safer Chemicals," a detailed look of all the steps companies can take, along with examples of what's already in practice.

"Chemicals remains a really miniscule element in most companies' sustainability initiatives," said Mark Rossi, lead author of the report and co-chair of BizNGO, a collaboration of mainly businesses and environmental organizations. "That said, when you start to get into the details, there is actually quite a bit of work that's going on among a lot of different companies."

In 2008, BizNGO created its Principles for Safer Chemicals, which detailed the four main areas it would work on:

1. Know and disclose chemicals.

2. Assess and avoid hazards.

3. Commit to continuous improvement.

4. Support public policy and industry standards.

Since then, Rossi said, a couple dozen business and environmental groups have also endorsed the principles. "But one of the questions that was always put to me is, 'What does it mean to implement these principles?'" he said.

The new guide is that next step. "It is based on the very best business practices among downstream user companies across all sectors," Rossi said.

In the guide, each principle is divided into four levels using the metaphor of climbing a mountain. The trailhead for disclosure, for example, is disclosing the presence or absence of some chemicals of high concern, while at the summit is disclosing all chemicals that are used in the supply chain and involved in feedstock sources.

Rossi noted that there are a couple key points for companies that are just now looking at chemicals to consider:

1. Start with the worst chemicals and redesign at the right stage.

"Every company that I've seen start on this path starts with some chemicals of high concern in their products," Rossi said. That category includes PVC, phthalates, brominated flame retardants, bisphenol A -- as well as other chemicals that are toxic, build up in the environment and are linked to a host of health issues.

Along with identifying such chemicals, companies need to design them out at the very first stages of product design.

2. You need a system for getting chemicals work done.

There are several methods used by companies. HP assesses chemicals using GreenScreen, Construction Specialties looks for the Cradle to Cradle Certified seal, and many in the apparel sector use the Bluesign standards.

"You need something that's systematic, replicable and saleable," Rossi said. Some companies build their own systems using tools that already exist, or they look to third-party certification.

Abstract science image provided by Andrii Muzyka /Shutterstock

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