The real key to remaking manufacturing: chemistry

John Warner green chemistry
Warner Babcock Institute
John Warner, green chemistry pioneer and current president and chief technology officer of the Massachusetts-based Warner Babock Institute.

The circular economy is often portrayed as recycling on steroids.

In a vision of production where natural resource inputs drastically are reduced by constantly cycling materials back through supply chains, niche upcycling or re-manufacturing efforts tend to win out over models with potential to cost-effectively scale.

One reason for that disconnect: A nagging lack of innovation in the materials relied upon to mass produce the goods we buy and sell every day.

As a pioneer of green chemistry and the president and chief technology officer of Massachusetts-based "green chemistry-based innovation factory" the Warner Babcock Institute, John Warner is well versed in the scientific sticking points that can arise with lofty visions such as the circular economy.

In an edited interview, Warner talks matching brands with sound science, seeking safer alternatives to well-known chemical ingredients and how Six Sigma dogma has convoluted global supply chains.

Lauren Hepler: Where are we with detoxing manufacturing?

John Warner: About two months ago, Bloomberg had a big event on the circular economy at their headquarters in New York. I was the only chemist. Everyone there talking about sustainability and environmental impacts in the circular economy were from the brands — the Levis and the Nikes, the companies that are selling to the consumers.

One of the issues that’s facing us now is that yes, the companies and the brands get this. But they don’t invent the materials. A designer can only design product that is of the materials they have available to them. If the basic building blocks are not sustainable, no designer can weave it and solder it and glue it together to make a sustainable product.

You will find that not one university ever offers a class on toxicology to chemists. The only people in the world who are capable of inventing a new material are not part of this conversation. The people who want to have the safe products don’t have the skill set to make fundamentally safe materials, and the people who have the skill set to make it aren’t learning it. That’s the big impasse. That’s where I see the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity.

Hepler: It's an interesting disconnect because sustainable design and design thinking are huge buzzy topics in business right now. Why hasn’t that translated to science?

Warner: The sad reality of this is that academia in general, but maybe chemistry more specifically, is very slow to evolve to anything. While the world is talking about sustainability and toxicity and the circular economy, we’re still teaching what we taught 30 years ago. It’s not an epic battle of good and evil, it’s some weird quirky thing.

One can be terrified and say, "Oh, how horrible this is," but it kind of articulates a path forward. When people say, "John, what should we be working on? Is solvents the frontier, or is it biodegradable plastic?" I say, "Umm … education." If the chemists who become chemists work on these issues, anything they work on for the rest of their life will be better.

My definition of green chemistry is a technology that has superior performance, superior cost and oh, by the way, has some sustainability narrative to boot. If you accept that definition, there can’t be any barrier to adoption. The only inhibition is its invention in the first place.

Hepler: So how do you resolve the impasse with green chemistry?

Warner: When we talk about innovation and creativity, one often goes down the road of, "Oh, it doesn’t happen in the center; it happens at the intersection of fields." I’m not so sure it’s all about intersection of fields. It certainly is not in the focal point, but the periphery where innovation truly happens.

Sustainability is going to come in from the outside, sadly. For the next several decades, it’s not going to be the chemist worrying about it but who they’re collaborating with.

Hepler: So how does the circular economy come into play in all of this, where you’re reducing natural resource inputs and cycling materials back into supply chains? People say toxic materials aren’t necessarily forbidden, but you have to find ways to reuse them.

Warner: That. Here’s the thing. The fundamental of green chemistry is that you look at the intrinsic hazard of a material, and we work to a day when the intrinsic hazard of a material is as minimal as possible. I don’t believe in zero. Obviously, every thing is always going to have some impact.

But different from one fundamental of the circular economy, green chemistry suggests that the chemists stay in the lab working until things are truly as less toxic as possible. That’s because the truth is that you can’t really engineer human behavior. If you sit back and say every one is safe as long as every one does the right thing, the problem is, of course, if humans are humans, some people won’t do the right thing.

There’s this great quote, and I won’t name the company, but at a company that sold electric equipment someone said, "Gee, there’s toxic material in the power cord, what if a baby chews on the power cord?" The person said, "Well, don’t have your baby chew on the power cord."

That can’t be the world that we live in. If we just claim intended use for everything, that’s not the way the world works. Green chemistry aspiration ally says instead of inventing technology for a perfect world, invent technologies for the real world. Expect that stuff is going to happen. Trucks are going to tip over. People are going to misuse things. The role of the chemist is not to invent for the people doing the right thing, but effectively people doing the likely thing.

Now, at the same time, many times green chemistry is not attainable. There are materials in commerce that we simply haven’t invented alternatives for. The only thing society can do, or must do, is the circular economy. I see the circular economy as being required until some utopian vision when everything is safe, but that’s a utopian vision and perfection doesn’t exist. The circular economy is the real world approach today, and green chemistry is the aspirational approach.

Hepler: So when it comes to specific examples of the circular economy in action, one of the things you've focused on is recycled asphalt.

Warner: We have a formaldehyde-free, no MDI wood adhesive. We have a hair coloring technology. We have an asphalt technology. We have an ALS drug in clinical trials. We’ve got a cancer drug in clinical trials. So we’re all over the place just trying to chip away at things that are either manufactured in less toxic or environmentally impactful ways.

The asphalt the whole idea was I looked initially and there’s a billion miles of asphalt in the United States alone. Every year, something like 10 percent gets repaved. What they do is they dig up the top inch or so, and they put it in a landfill. Because the sunlight and the air has oxidized it, it’s too brittle to really reuse.

Delta S, an additive designed to restore asphalt, developed by the Warner Babcock Institute and commercialized by the upstart Collaborative Aggregates.

I said to myself, "What if we came up with an additive that allowed you to reuse the oxidized and damaged stuff and just put it back down?" It’s not as easy as you would think, because since the oxidized stuff is brittle and hard, you think, "OK, put something in that softens it." But wait a minute, if you soften asphalt and then people drive on it, the car’s going to sink in. We had to come up with a molecule that kind of had a trigger in it that starts with softening and then turns around and re-hardens it.

That molecule is what we have. The formation is called Delta S, and the company we started is called Collaborative Aggregates. It’s out there selling drums and getting spec’d in state drums. It just hit the market I think May of last year but it’s already all over the place. There are products out there that say they do similar things, but when people have to use it, they have to use personal protection outfits and all that because there’s skull and crossbones on the bottles. Our stuff is literally edible.

Hepler: Another area I wanted to ask about was plastics in the circular economy. It’s a huge space since you’ve got traditional chemical companies reevaluating their offerings, then 3D printing companies working with advanced polymers and a lot of talk about ocean plastic pollution.

Warner: Here’s a crazy story. Something like June 29 of last year, I found myself on center stage of the general assembly of the United Nations. Well, what happened was — do you know the show "Whale Wars"?

Hepler: Yeah, I’ve seen clips here and there.

It’s this show on cable where a captain is on a ship called the Sea Shepard. What they do is find illegal fisherman doing evil, bad things and the ship chases them down and calls the Coast Guard. Usually it’s a very dramatic thing.

Well, they were chasing one of these evil boats that had 75 tons of gill net. A gill net is apparently some very illegal way of catching fish. It’s very unsustainable for a variety of reasons and fundamentally banned.

The Sea Shepard found this and picked up the 75 tons of gill net. They took a bunch of it, and they sent it to the Warner Babcock Institute via and organization called Parley for the Oceans. I get the stuff and we had to develop a way very quickly to separate the nylon from the polypropylene, to take the lead out, to deal with the pigments and the additives and extrude a new nylon fiber.

Standing at the United Nations was the company Adidas holding up their new 2016 shoe made from plastics from that gill net. It’s kind of cool.

Hepler: I remember that. Those shoes were everywhere, and the follow-up question every one asked was if you can do cool projects like that at scale. Do you think there are ways to replicate that model?

Warner: Yes and no. The thing is plastic is such a confounding, confusing issue. First of all, the word plastic shouldn’t be vilified. Plastics are not bad. There are some plastics that are bad, but there are some that aren’t bad. So we have a conundrum. There are some bad plastics that are already out there, and that’s a case for the circular economy.

They’re not going to go away. We’re not can’t put them on a space shuttle and send them to the sun, so we need to find something to do with them. Shoes and other things might be a beautiful way to do that. Are they going to be cost effective, or is this going to be something that people are going to say, "Wow, this is so cool, we’re going to make a ton of money"? Probably not. It’s going to have to be a lot of messaging, and the value is going to have a certain social aspect.

The real thing is going to be inventing the next generation of plastics. People talk about biodegradation, and the trick here is that’s not really what we need. What we need is triggered degradation. If you have something that is degrading immediately — your coffee cup starts to degrade immediately — you’re not going to be very happy. What we need is to have things that trigger the degradation.

From a biomimicry perspective, I always say look at digestion. When we or any organism eats food, what do we do? We take and break apart the components of the food, but they don’t purify the pieces. They don’t purify glucose and stick it in a bucket. No, simultaneously, catabolism and anabolism happen that the new materials — I need skin, I need hair, I need muscle, I need bone — simultaneously break up the components and at the same time builds the new materials.

That’s the vision we have to drive for in the future: mechanisms that can de-polymerize and disassemble products in a way that allows us to then reassemble and create things at the molecular level.

Hepler: Are there other types of materials that intrigue you in terms of reducing the environmental and social impacts of manufacturing?

Warner: I do think that the, whatever word people are using these days, the bio economy — using natural cellulosic materials and things that have some sustainable equation built into their reproduction — is an exciting area.

But I’ll go on a little bit of a philosophical tear. Here’s the problem: Engineers in the human built world for the last several decades have been worshipping at the altar of purity. We buy up material in the supply chain, and we want specification that it’s 99.9 percent pure. Then we design a manufacturing process that absolutely relies on that purity. If it goes out of spec, disaster happens and you get defects.

Whenever we look to the circular economy and we want to reuse a material, the cost impediment is purity. It costs way too much to purify something that’s already been out in society. The biomaterials cost way too much to purify. Therefore we come to the conclusion that we can’t use these materials because it’s just too cost impactful to have purity.

If I could invent a time machine and go back before we had invented all of these manufacturing processes, I would say, "Wait a minute. Look out at nature." Nothing is pure in nature. You get mixtures and molecular diversity all over the place, and that provides resilience. When it gets too cold, the tree still stands. When it gets too high, the tree still stands.

Because the engineering principle Six Sigma has dominated our thinking, it has in fact limited the performance of our products and limited the adoption of new materials. It’s too expensive to purify, not too expensive to make.

Hepler: Do you see transparency into the way things are made ultimately improving because of the circular economy, or do these models complicate supply chains further?

Warner: The times transparency gets difficult is when the interpretation is less transparent than the data itself. If you have some black box telling the world, "This is safe, this is not safe" because of some list of ingredients, that’s only 50 percent transparent.

In my perfect world, transparency means data on how products perform. If you have a cancer test, you take a product and submit to the cancer test and report how it performed against the cancer. It got a 7.3. Does this product have endocrine disruptor properties? 4.9. Is it a liver toxin? 4.6. Is it a global warming contributor? 2.6. No one passes judgement on good or bad, be we provide society with the performance and let them decide.

Where the issue of transparency gets messed up is if it’s only transparent to some people and not others. Right now I can buy an app on my phone that says never buy a product with parabens, and here are the products that have parabins. That’s great, and I think that’s important, but wouldn’t it be better if I as an inventor can’t invent just by having a product not have BPA. That doesn’t tell me what to do, it’s telling me not to have BPA.

But if that app said never buy a product that has a 2.6 or greater on the cancer test, then I in the lab can run those tests and look at what the numbers are and report meaningful information.

Hepler: So how do you ultimately improve that process?

Warner: I can go off on this forever. I have what I call my Elements of Safer Chemicals policy, and the first thing is don’t make lists of ingredients, make lists of tests. Instead of having a blacklist of bad molecules, say, "Here is the assay we trust for cancer."

Element No. 2 is we evaluate entire products or reasonable parts of products and not ingredient lists. Most ingredients vanish in manufacturing, and more importantly, materials appear in manufacturing that aren’t on the ingredient list. If you’re just talking about the product, there are also no trade secrets to protect, and that’s kind of critical.

The third element is you never say good or bad, you just report the number and let people decide for themselves.

It’s not going to happen overnight, though. It’s going to take decades.