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Green Chemistry: Changing An Industry
Jeremy Faludi, 9 Jul 07
Article Photo

You can't do green design without green materials, and material innovations tend to come from chemists. Chemists also produce many products in their own right: paints, adhesives, cleaning products, whole industries. So what are chemists doing to save the world?

There's currently one famous green chemist in the world: Michael Braungart (founder of EPEA, co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and co-author of Cradle to Cradle). The world needs about a hundred more.

We've written before about legislation (mostly in the EU) tightening standards for toxics, and about the huge strides needed to close today's three critical gaps: knowledge (not only in the general public and governments, but in the chemical industry itself), safety (prioritizing hazards and enacting limits), and technology (developing safer, greener alternatives). But legislation can be slow and fickle, and the industry has a huge amount of inertia; many well-funded groups such as the American Chemistry Council lobby for the status-quo. What are chemists doing to lead?

They're doing a lot of things, as it turns out. Some researchers are developing alternative plastics that don't use petrochemicals, some associations are prioritizing green within their members, whole green-chem institutes are being founded, and groups are trying to teach chemists to green their processes. Sustainable chemistry is a baby, born thirty years ago but just now starting to crawl; let's help it get up on its feet.

Greener Plastics

What if that “new car smell” were the smell of fresh-baked potatoes or toasted corn? In the last five years, several bio-plastics manufacturers have come to market, and more are in the lab. Rodenburg Biopolymers in the Netherlands makes potato-starch plastic for disposable cutlery and packaging, and several companies in China sell corn-starch or potato-starch cutlery; enough that it has a buzzword, "spudware". NatureWorks PLA has a solid enough toe-hold in the market to be old news to many. A less-well-known competitor is PHA by Mechabolix. PHA has much better engineering properties than PLA (you can't make a cell phone case out of pure PLA, but you could make it out of PHA); however, it has two serious downsides. According to this excellent year 2000 Scientific American article (re-posted on mindfully.org), manufacturing PHA "would consume even more fossil resources than most petrochemical manufacturing routes." The second downside is that manufacturing it cheaply requires genetic modification of the corn crops.

Last year, Richard Wool at the University of Delaware created chicken feather and soy composite circuit boards. Not only do they replace the non-recyclable, energy-intensive fiberglass and epoxy materials, they are "a lighter, stronger, cheaper product with high-speed electronic properties." This is especially relevant because the circuit board often has the highest ecological impact of any part in a computer or other consumer electronics device--more than the plastic case, and sometimes more than the electronic components on the board. The chicken feather / soy composite could also be used as a structural material for other applications. For years, the university's ACRES team (Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources) has been researching different chemical pathways and feedstocks to determine the highest-performance and lowest-cost ways of making plastic out of soy.

Perhaps the most exciting is making plastic that sequesters CO2. Two years ago, Geoff Coates's lab at Cornell University developed a polystyrene-like plastic made out of CO2 and orange peels. Now he has a small startup company, Novomer, to commercialize it. As his Cornell group website says, "Although it is estimated that Nature uses CO2 to make over 200 billion tons of glucose by photosynthesis each year, synthetic chemists have had embarrassing little success in developing efficient catalytic processes that exploit this attractive raw material." The pages go on to describe the catalysts they found, which allowed them to achieve their breakthroughs. Keep an eye out in the next couple years for PLC (Polylimonene Carbonate), as well as the other polymers and catalysts that Novomer is making.


Associations and Institutions

Some big-name organizations are starting to push green chemistry. There are green chemistry institutions and networks in over 20 countries around the world; the ACS Green Chemistry Institute in the US has a decent list of them. The British government's Chemistry Innovation Network has a strong sustainability initiative called the "Crystal Faraday partnership". They make the importance of their mission clear:


"In the developed world, it is recognised that only 7% of production materials used in a process end up in the final product and that 80% of products are discarded after a single use. It is essential, therefore, that we seek to reduce material resources and ensure that any materials released to the environment are not toxic, harmful or persistent."

One of the largest and most respected groups of chemists, the UK's Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), is celebrating its 50th year, and its 2007 Jubilee report "is not merely a report of past successes. It is much more a call to arms". The IchemE's chief executive said, “Over the next decade, chemical engineers’ work will be crucial as we tackle global issues such as climate change, waste reduction and access to clean water." The report is all about the progress being made in environmental safety, energy, water, and other sustainability issues. Aimed at laypeople, it's sprinkled with success stories and challenges. For instance, produce bags that allow the fruits or vegetables to 'breathe', increasing shelf life; this doesn't sound exciting until they point out that "Longer life means produce can be transported by sea rather than road transport (which produces 228 times more CO2 emissions) and air freight (which produces 90 times more)." Another nugget: "Cafeteria food waste has a biogas production potential nearly ten times that of animal manure, making it an interesting potential source of renewable energy." And even some biomimicry: they mentioned a new, safer method of industrial bleaching, based on an enzyme from a microbe discovered in Yellowstone National Park.


Training and Guidance

Currently there is little more than a trickle-down of green chemistry knowledge between companies, governments, NGOs, and universities. Companies' chemical information is proprietary, and many environmental impacts have never been measured, much less publicized. Some universities and government agencies have data on a few specific chemicals, but lack a centralized clearinghouse of information. MBDC may have the best database of chemical environmental data, but it is private and expensive information. Opening up the faucets of these knowledge flows, and getting them all in one tub big enough to splash in, may be the most important step for the industry right now. Several groups are trying to crank the taps.

Britain's Chemistry Innovation Network has a roadmap for sustainable technologies, including trends and drivers, specific needs of the industry, the business case, a review of technologies, and case studies. These are aimed at everyone in the chemical industry. UC Berkeley's Framework for California Leadership in Green Chemistry Policy recommends policy directions for lawmakers. For consumers, the Ecology Center put together a consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars, HealthyCar.org. The site ranks over 200 vehicles in terms of indoor air quality, as well as rating child car seats for brominated flame retardants, and explaining what chemicals to be concerned with and why.

Chemists looking to learn should check out the EPA's 2002 textbook, Green Engineering: Environmentally Conscious Design of Chemical Processes. There's also a newer EPA tool, the downloadable Green Chemistry Expert System. It's a piece of software that "allows users to build a green chemical process, design a green chemical, or survey the field of green chemistry." For a less technical introduction, they have a web page listing their Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry:


1. Prevent waste
2. Design safer chemicals and products
3. Design less hazardous chemical syntheses
4. Use renewable feedstocks
5. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents
6. Avoid chemical derivatives
7. Maximize atom economy
8. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions:
9. Increase energy efficiency
10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use
11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution
12. Minimize the potential for accidents

Most of these principles are aimed at being less bad. Michael Braungart argues convincingly that we need to shoot higher than that, we need to aim to be good. Zero is not a positive outcome. But some of them are positive goals, and for those that aren't, even if less-bad is as good as we can do for now, we need to keep a longer-term positive goal in mind.

Some awards are even being given for green chemistry: Britain's Green Chemistry Network has had awards for seven years under various names with the IchemE. The US EPA has a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute also has a Green Chemistry Challenge Award.


The Future of Chemistry

Will the chemical market start to go green by itself, as a few industries are starting to do? Not yet. Michael Wilson, a researcher at UC Berkeley, told me that "green chemistry entrepreneurs have a difficult time breaking into the market because there are fundamental data gaps in chemical toxicity that prevent buyers from choosing safer chemicals... The market is therefore operating very inefficiently and will require corrections through public policy." He said "by requiring that producers generate and distribute standardized, robust information on chemical toxicity (for use by downstream industry, business, consumers, workers) we will open new markets for green chemistry entrepreneurs." This is the knowledge gap mentioned at the beginning, which the groups described above are working to close.

Wilson was hopeful about green chemistry entrepreneurs he knows, which "have some brilliant products supported by solid data - that reduce costs significantly and also make a substantial environmental contribution." (For instance, Advanced Biocatalytics, and Novozyme.)

But before the market will steer itself towards green, we need to also close the safety gap: "regulations (such as RoHS, WEEE and the REACH) [need] to force clean technology change (that won't happen any other way)." And finally, he argues "state investment in green chemistry research, education, technical assistance, and training will be essential." Such a combination -- new regulations, targeted research and bold commitments to innovation -- will close the technology gap, giving us alternatives and kick-starting new industries on the right path to a bright green future.

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Comments

Jeremy, this is an outstanding piece. Are there any companies in the US that you think are poised to be a leader on this? You say US industry lobbies for the "status quo," so I'm wondering if there's anyone out there that can make the case from an industry perspective.


Posted by: David Wescott on 9 Jul 07

Good question, David. I don't know enough about the industry to call a favorite. For instance, with plastics, Purdue professor Bernard Tao was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “Its almost like we’re seeing the same competition over who will dominate the plastic market as we did a hundred years ago”. There are a bunch of startups like Novomer, and then there're the big boys like Dow and DuPont that are sticking their toes into the green game as well. Many are poised, but few will end up leading the pack.

Any readers in the chemical industry? Pipe up with your thoughts.


Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 10 Jul 07

Have a look at the RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) journal Green Chemistry


Posted by: John Kazer on 10 Jul 07

Great article for sure... any examples of real world products hitting the shelves?


Posted by: BS on 11 Jul 07

Another resource to keep on your radar is CleanGredients, an online database that provides verified information on the environmental and human health attributes of chemical ingredients used in the cleaning product industry.

Developed in partnership with the EPA's Design for the Environment Program, the project has a some interesting features:

First, by focusing on the cleaning product industry, it can emphasize certain attributes (such as aquatic toxicity) that are of particular concern to those products' life-cycle. Second, the model for information gathering, access, and dissemination reflects a new approach to balancing the needs of the various stakeholders (ingredient suppliers seeking confidentiality on their ingredient's composition, and a fair sharing of the costs of gathering the extensive testing data necessary for listing.)

(disclaimer: I worked on the beta version of the online database, although I am no longer affiliated with the project.)


Posted by: Tarek on 12 Jul 07

Check out the California EPA's green chemistry initiative:
http://www.dtsc.ca.gov/PollutionPrevention/GreenChemistryInitiative/index.cfm

They are looking for input, and their blog seems to be starting a conversation. This is definitely the beachhead for green chemistry policy in the U.S., and will serve to bolster some of the efforts and companies you describe.


Posted by: Josh on 12 Jul 07

My name is Steve Levine and I am the founder of Excellent Packaging & Supply.
We created SpudWare™ in August of 2005 and have sold 15 million since then.
Our BioMass™ Sustainable Foodservice Packaging can be seen on our website.
These products are very real. Made from agricultural waste feed stock, many of these products could be made domstically. Currently almost all of the pla products are made in the usa. All of the bagasse(waste) products are coming in from Asia. We have feed stock here and now to utilize for fuel and packaging. Regional production utilizing regional waste(rice straw, corn stover, sugarcane...) to make product used locally and then municipally composted. We are talking about the fact you can achieve a 100% compostable and capturable waste stream.
Composting is a natural evolution when your waste stream is compostable.


Posted by: Steven Levine on 12 Jul 07

My name is Steve Levine and I am the founder of Excellent Packaging & Supply.
We created SpudWare™ in August of 2005 and have sold 15 million since then.
Our BioMass™ Sustainable Foodservice Packaging can be seen on our website.
These products are very real. Made from agricultural waste feed stock, many of these products could be made domstically. Currently almost all of the pla products are made in the usa. All of the bagasse(waste) products are coming in from Asia. We have feed stock here and now to utilize for fuel and packaging. Regional production utilizing regional waste(rice straw, corn stover, sugarcane...) to make product used locally and then municipally composted. We are talking about the fact you can achieve a 100% compostable and capturable waste stream.
Composting is a natural evolution when your waste stream is compostable.


Posted by: Steven Levine on 12 Jul 07

My name is Steve Levine and I am the founder of Excellent Packaging & Supply.
We created SpudWare™ in August of 2005 and have sold 15 million since then.
Our BioMass™ Sustainable Foodservice Packaging can be seen on our website.
These products are very real. Made from agricultural waste feed stock, many of these products could be made domstically. Currently almost all of the pla products are made in the usa. All of the bagasse(waste) products are coming in from Asia. We have feed stock here and now to utilize for fuel and packaging. Regional production utilizing regional waste(rice straw, corn stover, sugarcane...) to make product used locally and then municipally composted. We are talking about the fact you can achieve a 100% compostable and capturable waste stream.
Composting is a natural evolution when your waste stream is compostable.


Posted by: Steven Levine on 12 Jul 07

Great article Jeremy! And I really appreciate the conversation it has started. Does anyone know if Novoma (or anyone else for that matter) has started producing the biodegradable polyurethane insulation made from 30-50% CO2? I'm working for the year at a very forward-thinking green architecture firm in Alberta, Canada and they would definitely be open to using such a product.

I would appreciate someone emailing me directly if they have any useful information (i_have_no_email4@hotmail.com).


Posted by: Malcolm on 16 Jul 07

Hello Everyone,

My name is Jim Cooper and I am with the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) here in the U.S. Our organization represents the specialty chemical industry, including the vast diversity of chemistries found in commerce. I was forwarded a link to this posting and find the discussion informative and interesting. I’d like to discuss a couple of the points raised so far, and then tell you about something our organization has been working on for the past two years.

The discussions outlined in the third paragraph, which were originally asserted in Michael Wilson’s report Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation, have not been adequately debated in the public realm. I applaud your efforts to provide a platform for this type of discussion, but please be aware that there are many points of view and not all agree with these assertions.

The chemical industry, particularly chemists and toxicologists, use well-established methods to characterize the hazards, potential exposures and risks associated with chemicals. This type of characterization does not necessarily require measured data for each chemical compound. We can look at the molecular structure of a chemical, compare it to other chemicals, and make a conservative estimate of its potential hazards. We look at the uses of the chemicals and activity patterns associated with those uses, along with certain physical properties, and can estimate the potential for exposures. From there we can qualitatively and conservatively characterize the risk that a particular chemical may pose. If there are questions regarding the risk, we use a tiered and targeted approach to developing more definitive information through experimentation. This is also the way that government scientists characterize chemicals in commerce.

Regarding the assertion that we lobby for the status quo, I must take exception. I can’t speak for other industry groups, but as far as SOCMA is concerned, our advocacy is based on scientific principles and we welcome constructive, open debate. So far, most of the discussions on green chemistry, sustainable chemistry and chemicals policy in general have taken place in silos. SOCMA supports open, balanced discussions and is committed to participate in these processes as much as possible.

So I don’t ramble on too long, I’d like to close by sharing with this group a project that I’ve been personally involved with for the past couple of years. Later this year SOCMA will launch the International Center for Sustainable Chemistry, which will serve as an industry conduit for the pursuit of green chemistry. We think that the specialty chemical industry, because of its knowledge in the diverse chemistries found in commerce, can be an integral player in this area. We will be working in a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other interested stakeholders to provide training workshops, hold discussions similar to this one, form supply-chain partnership groups interested in greening particular supply chains, as well as a host of other activities.

Although we may not agree on policy issues, SOCMA believes that open, frank discussions are the best path forward for everyone. Thanks for providing this forum and I look forward to further discussions.

Best Regards,
Jim


Posted by: Jim Cooper on 17 Jul 07

Thanks for the comment, Jim.

I'm glad you're pushing for open discussion. I think one of the main benefits of REACH will be that it will cause a lot more open discussion about chemical constituents--within supply chains, within government, and maybe even in the general public (or at least activist orgs). It will help all parties make more informed decisions and have more intelligent arguments, because more facts will be available.

As for SOCMA, I'm not familiar with them, so I wasn't trying to cast any aspersions their way. I have to say that assessing risk by looking at molecular structure on paper sounds unreliable to me, but it's great to hear that they're founding a Center for Sustainable Chemistry. I hope great things come out of it!


Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 21 Jul 07

Dear Mr. Faludi: I am delighted to see that you and your organization are promoting the concept of green chemistry and that you correctly assert the fundamental need that our society has for cleaner, healthier and safer materials.

What puzzled my colleagues and me was the false impression you give that Green Chemistry, as operationalized in the 12 Principles, was somehow merely making things "less bad".

The definition of Green Chemistry, as originally put forward by Paul Anastas (Yale University) and John Warner (UMASS Lowell and the Warner Institute), the two chemists who literally wrote the book defining the field, is:

"Green Chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances."

The goal of eliminating hazard is nothing short of revolutionary thinking about toxic substances in our economy. What makes it profound is the notion that chemists can consciously eliminate hazard - not just by limiting exposure, but deliberately eliminating hazard by design.

Green Chemistry directly addresses some of the most daunting problems chemicals pose today - persistence in the environment and bioaccumulation in organisms.

Further, Green Chemistry has demonstrated that these positive environmental and health effects can be accomplished by companies while generating profits at the same time.

If this is not net positive in result, as you indicated was the ultimate vision for chemicals, then I don't know what is.

Sincerely,

Karen Peabody O'Brien, PhD
Executive Director
Advancing Green Chemistry


Posted by: Karen Peabody O'Brien on 25 Jul 07



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