Green Chemistry Becomes a Core Element of Industry

Green Chemistry Becomes a Core Element of Industry

Liquids - / CC BY 2.0

Chemistry flows through every industry, so any discussion about green chemistry is about changing some part of how every business operates.

NewScientist looks at the many ways green chemistry is being used in seven areas in a recent feature, "Better living through green chemistry," explaining successes and challenges in the pharmaceutical, food and drink, packaging, cosmetics, clothing, electronics, and house and home sectors.

While the idea of green chemistry has been around for over a decade, it's recently gained more attention due to the financial benefits it can bring, new laws and regulations, and pressure from consumers, environmental groups and businesses that sell final products.

Pharmaceutical companies have been able to reduce the amounts of chemicals they use, eliminate dangerous chemicals, create less waste and use their ingredients more efficiently. NewScientist explains:

When gearing up for commercial production of Viagra, Pfizer's chemists designed a new reaction strategy that radically reduced the amount of solvent required, cut out the reagents tin chloride, an environmental pollutant, and hydrogen peroxide, which is a fire and transportation hazard, and produced just a quarter of the waste of the original process.

Companies other than Pfizer have had successes as well, and most major drug companies are part of the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute roundtable.

While the use of fertilizers and pesticides is clearly a major environmental impact for any industry that relies on growing plants and crops, the food and drink industry has been exploring other places that green chemistry can offer benefits.

A number of processes like decaffeinating coffee beans and extracting hops can be accomplished with pressurized carbon dioxide in place of solvents and other harsh chemicals.

As for packaging, bioplastics have become a more frequent topic as more companies switch to or explore using plant-based material in their products. NatureWorks stands out as a big name in bioplastics, with its Ingeo material being used in cups, food containers and, most recently, SunChips bags, among numerous other items.

Replacing ingredients or starting out with only safe ingredients are some of the tactics used by cosmetics companies to clean up their products. But in some cases, a safer choice can still have negative environmental impacts.

Unfortunately, while these materials are renewable, they can be far from environmentally benign, as biodiverse forests around the globe have been cleared and replaced by monocultures of oil palms. A scheme to certify palm oil as sustainable has been in operation since late 2008, but of the 40 million tonnes of palm oil produced annually, only around 1.7 million tonnes is so far covered, according to the industry-led Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

As mentioned above, fertilizers and pesticides are a big issue for companies that rely on agriculture. In the world of clothing, companies' chemical-related impacts also come from using dyes and water. There are several alternatives to cotton being tested or shopped around, but cost and performance are some of the big roadblocks in the way of widespread adoption of clothing made with bamboo, Tencel and other materials.{related_content}

The electronics industry has been one area where companies have felt plenty of pressure - both from laws and environmental groups - to clean up what they are putting into products. Greenpeace has been keeping tabs on what companies are taking out of, as well as what they are keeping in, products. Major companies like Apple, IBM and Nokia are some of the leaders that have cut toxic chemicals out of manufacturing processes and final products.

And as for house and home (a category that is tied to offices and other buildings), anyone seeking to make a greener building now has options for using adhesives, paints, solvents and other products that emit few or no volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde.

Liquids - / CC BY 2.0