Charting a path to make green chemistry mainstream

The Right Chemistry

Charting a path to make green chemistry mainstream

Flask of green chemical
Many companies want green chemistry, but how can we make it the norm?

Later this month, participants at the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council’s 10th annual Innovators Roundtable will hear the results of the soon-to–be-released "Agenda to Mainstream Green Chemistry." This document is the culmination of a year of research into barriers, opportunities and needs to bring green chemistry into the mainstream.

The Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) is a business-to-business forum that advances the application of green chemistry and design for environment across supply chains. GC3 members include businesses in all parts of the supply chain, not-for-profit organizations, governments and academic researchers. Its business members account for close to 7 percent of U.S. GNP. GC3 members work in product development, sustainability, product stewardship, regulatory affairs, research and development, quality assurance and more.

The agenda's goal is to make the case for mainstreaming green chemistry and identify steps that GC3 member companies — leaders in green chemistry — believe must happen to speed the adoption of green chemistry practices. In the GC3’s view, green chemistry will be considered mainstream when all chemistry is green chemistry.

Chemistry in every part of business

Twelve principles define green chemistry. Green chemistry is practiced primarily at the chemical development and formulation level. However, product developers, manufacturers, brands and retailers all play an important role in driving and adopting green chemistry.

Several ways they do this are by changing the way that products are designed or fabricated, such as design specifications; specifying and sourcing materials and products that incorporate green chemistry; changing manufacturing practices to substitute or reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in production; and developing and implementing policies restricting certain classes of chemicals or chemical risks in the products they make, source and/or sell.

Green chemistry incorporates every element of business, from feedstock selection through manufacturing to finished products, including the ways that companies manage their businesses and engage their customers throughout the supply chain.

As part of developing the agenda, a survey was sent to 39 GC3 member companies — chemical companies, manufacturers, brands and retailers. There was some overlap between categories; for example, a brand, which is a company that puts its own name on its products, also could be a manufacturer of that product. A retailer, which sells products, also might have its own brands.

Thirty-six responses were received from 29 of them, a 75 percent response rate. The survey was multiple-choice, with room to add additional responses and comments on each question. Of those companies submitting more than one response, there were some differences in answers, reflecting different perspectives based on where people sat in their company.

Lab worker in cap, mask and gloves
Chemical safety was the respondents' greatest concern.

Why companies want to mainstream green chemistry

GC3 companies want to see green chemistry mainstreamed because this will help open new markets — both domestically and internationally — for their products. However, almost all reported that their top drivers are that it supports their concern for worker and environmental safety (as one respondent said, “everything else is a trade-off, but you never trade off safety”). It also should provide them a competitive advantage, fit their brand and satisfy customer demand.

Other reasons mentioned are concern for community and worker health and safety, legal compliance and NGO pressure. There is some variation in the ranking of drivers based on where a company is in the supply chain.

The challenges of mainstreaming

Even though green chemistry yields a wide range of benefits, there are many reasons why it is not yet mainstreamed and why it needs more support to become so.

Some barriers experienced by GC3 members include the high cost to scale up new products, including the time it takes to get these to market (chemical company members estimate five to 10 years for research and development, registration, testing, scaling and building a production facility); lack of technically and/or economically feasible alternatives; the high cost to research alternatives; the perceived high cost of alternatives; lack of disclosure about what is in materials; lack of available safer alternatives; lack of information about safer alternatives and a perceived lack of value in green chemistry. 

As with drivers, these barriers vary depending on where in the supply chain a company sits. For example, lack of disclosure and lack of information about safer alternatives are bigger barriers on the brand and retail sides of the supply chain, while the high cost of green chemistry alternatives is experienced more by the chemical companies.

There are additional reasons why green chemistry is not yet the norm. Many green chemistry products are still at laboratory or pilot scale, and production-scale plants are not expected to be running at capacity for several more years.

Timing of a new chemical product, especially given the cost and lag time from idea to product, is also a factor: chemical companies may develop a new product but there is no market, or no market at their price. Years later the market may open, and it becomes more economical to scale up a plant then.

U.S. Capitol dome
Bob Marquart
Respondents agree that policy is one of the five steps to mainstreaming green chemistry.

Poor communication in supply chains is another reason why new innovations lag. As found in the GC3’s Retail Leadership Council dialogue with chemical companies, chemical companies do not always get the clear message from their supply chains about demand for a particular safer alternative. Even if they do, other issues in the supply chain can slow adoption, such as the possible need for brands and manufacturers to redesign or reformulate products, and creating enough demand to warrant chemical company investments.

The winning mindset

As stated by one GC3 member, green chemistry is a process, a way to think, and is not necessarily a check-off list.  As such, a workforce trained in this way of thinking is important, and while the number of chemistry programs teaching green chemistry is growing, it is still a small number. Business culture and practices cannot transform until a significant workforce trained in green chemistry exists. 

The survey asked what kinds of policies and other steps would help companies expand green chemistry. Of the policies, government funding for research and development, chemical bans, streamlining of permitting, tax policies favoring green chemistry, policies that help internalize externalities and government purchasing of green chemistry products scored highest.

Activities relating to building partnerships ranked high among the non-policy measures. Chemical companies specified wanting to build partnerships with university researchers far higher than anything else. Brands and product manufacturers were interested in partnerships with environmental organizations. And retailers and brands were interested in partnerships with similar companies to identify safer alternatives.

These and other information gathered through stakeholder meetings and additional research have informed the recommendations in the agenda. They fall into five categories: enhancing understanding of the marketplace; supporting smart policies that accelerate green chemistry; fostering collaboration; disseminating information; and tracking progress.

These recommendations will be the focus of panels and discussions at the GC3 meeting, where 150-175 attendees are expected to weigh in. Results will be published by the summer.