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The Right Chemistry

How collaboration can lead to better decisions on safer chemical alternatives

<p>How competitors like Dow and BASF, HP and Dell, along with suppliers, universities and NGOs are working together to produce greener chemistry. Here&#39;s what they learned.</p>

The pressure is mounting on brands to eliminate known chemicals of concern from their products. The European Union’s REACH regulations, Washington State’s Children’s Safe Products Act, and California's Green Chemistry Initiative, with new regulations due out imminently, are but a few examples of the many laws driving companies to identify and eliminate chemicals of concern. Add to this list growing interest and pressure from individual consumers, NGOs and retailers for greater safety and transparency.

The path to elimination can be riddled with challenges. Finding a truly safer substitute that can deliver as good or better performance can be time-consuming and expensive, made difficult by the lack of toxicity and performance data on purported alternatives and the need in many cases to compel suppliers to make the switch.

Some brands are finding that this is an area ripe for collaboration rather than competition. Pooling knowledge, funds and data to evaluate safer alternatives can lower the cost to individual companies; create more robust results; help avoid regrettable substitutions; and ultimately increase the demand, availability and lower the cost of the most promising substitutes.

Collaboration makes even more sense when the target chemical is in a commodity material or component that is common to products sold by multiple brands. Take power cords for example. Many brands want power cords that are free of polyvinyl chloride, brominated flame retardants, and certain phthalate plasticizers. They source these cords from the same group of suppliers. If these brands are aligned on safer chemical alternatives, they stand a greater chance of getting what they want, cheaper and faster, from their supply chain.

The Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) is facilitating an innovative collaborative project, involving brands and suppliers, a university and an NGO to evaluate safer alternatives to toxic plasticizers in wire and cable applications. The goal is to generate useable results for this chemical category and application while developing an effective model for future collaborations. Project members include plasticizer manufacturers Dow, Hallstar, and BASF; plastic compounders Teknor Apex and PolyOne; electronic brands Hewlett-Packard, EMC, and Dell; and retailer Staples; the University of Massachusetts Lowell; and NGO Clean Production Action.

The companies selected the alternative plasticizers for the evaluation and kicked in funds to hire ToxServices, a toxicology consultancy, to conduct thorough assessments of nine plasticizers using a chemical hazard assessment method developed by Clean Production Action called the GreenScreen™. The group met on monthly calls and worked off-line, contributed their expertise and test data, reviewed assessments and made strategic decisions on topics such as how to assess technical performance of alternatives. The draft GreenScreen™ assessments are currently undergoing a peer review and when finalized, will be released to the public.

This project yielded lessons that can help future collaborations:

  • Require full ingredient transparency up front, as a condition of participation, or be prepared to manage requests by some chemical manufacturers to conceal the identity of the ingredients in their formulations. Our group did not agree up-front to full disclosure and several plasticizer manufacturers would not disclose the recipe of their products. We managed this by allowing ToxServices to do chemical assessments under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the manufacturers. The assessment report contained the assessment results but the ingredient list was redacted. For future projects, the GC3 may require full transparency as a condition of participation.
  • Provide clear guidance from the start to participating chemical product manufacturers on the data requirements for the chemical assessment, but….be prepared to tackle data gaps, particularly when evaluating newer chemical products and products from smaller manufacturers. GeenScreens™ and other comprehensive chemical hazard assessment methods are data intensive and toxicology testing is expensive. ToxServices addressed many datagaps through modeling or by obtaining data for suitable analogue chemicals.
  • Be clear up front with chemical manufacturers that participating carries some risk that the assessment may not turn out as they hoped. When a chemical supplier privately contracts with a toxicologist to conduct an assessment of a product and the toxicologist finds problems, the supplier does not need to publicly release the results. In contrast, when ToxServices completed a draft assessment for review, the results were made public within the GC3 project group -- to competitors and potential customers – and will ultimately be released to the public whether or not the supplier is happy with the results.

The GC3 is considering options for future collaborations, focused on other categories of chemicals and applications. Flame retardants in electronic housings and durable water repellants in textiles have been discussed as possible candidates. You can keep up with these and other GC3 projects at the GC3 website.

Image of molecule 3d with red green blue by louisstudio via Shutterstock.

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