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The Right Chemistry

How the Northwest is working to mainstream green chemistry

Since the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, there has been a lack of national consensus on how to tackle hazardous chemicals. That’s meant that the states—individually and together—have taken the lead on solving global chemical policy issues like flame retardants, copper, phthalates and others.

It's particularly true here in the Pacific Northwest, where endangered salmon runs and declining populations of orca whales have given us very visible examples of the societal and environmental costs from poor policies. Washington’s state legislature has often been a frontrunner in pursuing chemical regulation – as have our nearby neighbors in Oregon and California. For many of us working to advance safer chemicals in the Northwest, it made sense for industry, researchers and educators to also take a collaborative regional approach to solving these problems.

Northwest Green Chemistry was created to connect those dots. It has tried to get ahead of regulation by working with industry to identify problems and putting those opportunities in front of researchers. As an independent nonprofit, Northwest Green Chemistry can bring the many stakeholders involved in chemicals management together on equal footing.

Often, those of us who work in hazardous materials management and sustainability will talk about “mainstreaming green chemistry” by getting companies to think about reducing or eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals when they are designing new products or processes. The ultimate mission of Northwest Green Chemistry is to ensure that, as people turn to green chemistry for answers, they’ll find the solutions and resources they need.

So far, this project is in its infancy as we talk with industry and academic groups to ensure that the opportunity we see can become a viable niche for us. We recently conducted a market survey to gather feedback on what services would be most valuable. We’re also working with academic institutions to sponsor trainings and, separately, developing curriculum for continuing education programs for professionals. We’ll take another step forward on Oct. 28 with a roundtable to gather national leaders and people from around our region.

Certainly, the talent and the drive are there – or, rather, they are here.

Northwest retailers are making strides on getting hazardous materials out of their supply chains. Manufacturers, such as the Outdoor Industry Association’s chemicals management module (CMM), are working together to share a common approach. COSMO BioRefinery is seeking to extract and sell cellulosic sugars and other biochemicals into an established market. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in reinvigorating the forest products industry via the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) that is harnessing biomass for aviation biofuels and specialty chemicals. Rivertop Renewables of Missoula, Mont. just launched a new green chemistry division this month to specifically produce ingredients for consumer-based products.   

An amazing group of supporters has stepped up to serve on the board for Northwest Green Chemistry, including representatives from our region’s leading universities, manufacturers, and nonprofit organizations. Our group includes the kind of big thinkers and innovators that you need to stitch together an ambitious project like this.

What’s possible? Established centers such as the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production show the impact a concerted effort can have. By bringing world-class thinking to bear on local problems, TURI has been able to have a national and global impact.

The Northwest has the same potential to lead the way, particularly on issues like alternatives to copper boat paint and eliminating PCBs in products .

The PCB issue hits especially close to home, since the toxic chemical builds up in the iconic orca whales that live in or visit Puget Sound. Although the chemical was outlawed years ago, polychlorinated biphenyls are present as a trace contaminant in many common pigments, particularly bright yellows and greens. Ultimately, this presents us with a grand challenge here in the Pacific Northwest to tackle toxics with green chemistry solutions. Northwest Green Chemistry is planning a technology symposium on green chemistry solutions to the PCB problem in 2015.

Our academic community is also stepping up. The Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry (CSMC) at the University of Oregon is a focal point for producing the next generation of green chemists and sustainable chemistry. There’s also groundbreaking molecular toxicology research lead by Dr. Robert Tanguay at Oregon State University related to the health effects of chemical mixtures. His lab is using zebra fish to evaluate the toxicity of thousands of chemicals used in consumer products, which could lead to green chemistry innovation.

The University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education department will offer an online certificate program in green chemistry in 2015, giving professionals the opportunity to study the principles of green chemistry and then apply them in their workplaces.

As we lay the groundwork for our vision of green chemistry, we want it to reflect the needs and values of the Northwest. For example, the Washington Department of Ecology developed a new Alternatives Assessment Discussion Draft for use in Washington State based off the national guide created by the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse. The Washington guide will establish a recommended set of criteria for small- to medium-sized businesses seeking to advance the transition to safer chemicals.  

Earlier this year in the Idaho state legislature, the Health and Welfare Committee introduced a Senate Concurrent Resolution that encourages companies to avoid substances likely to be harmful and to substitute for safer alternatives wherever feasible.

None of this is to suggest that there are easy green chemistry solutions to the challenges we face in the Pacific Northwest. But it does show that there are solutions out there, economic opportunities and increasing numbers of people dedicated to solving those problems.

If you’re interested in these issues in our region, we encourage you to collaborate with Northwest Green Chemistry to see where we may find shared interests, concerns, or opportunities. Bring us your green chemistry challenges and let’s tackle toxics together.

Top image of cylinders by via Shutterstock

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