Green chemistry is an increasingly important player in global efforts to find more sustainable ways to minimize our impacts on the Earth. Green chemistry is the branch of chemistry concerned with developing processes and products to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances. One of the goals of green chemistry is to prevent pollution at its source, as opposed to dealing with pollution after it has occurred.
Here is a short essay on green chemistry written by Seetha Kammula in 2011. She is one of the founding partners of Simply Sustain LLC, has over 25 years of experience first at Royal Dutch Shell, and later at Basell, a Shell BASF Joint Venture. At Basell she was Senior VP Strategic Marketing, Innovation & Asset Management and a member of the Board of Directors of Indelpro (Mexico). At Shell she was Strategy Director (Houston), Director of Technology (Belgium)- both for Epoxy Resins, and Research Scientist (Amsterdam). She received a BS degree from Osmania University, India, a PhD degree in Organic Chemistry from Auburn University, and did post-doctorate research at Princeton University.
Today, the word “chemicals” is very divisive. Those inside the “fence” (producers and chemists) see themselves as responsible people who work hard to make lives better, healthier and more comfortable. Amongst many outside the fence, the chemicals raises fear, anxiety and suspicion. The question is : will green chemistry bridge this divide and pave the way for sustainable growth?
If you Google green chemistry you will find concepts from many sources: the 12 principles of Green Chemistry by the American Chemical Society, Bio-mimicry, The Natural Step, Biotechnology, Genetic engineering, Cradle-to-Cradle etc. At the heart of what they all advocate are a handful of principles: reduce waste and energy, use safer solvents, catalysts and renewable starting materials and avoid the production, use and release of toxins and chemicals that persist in nature. How is this movement going?
Patents and innovations in Green Chemistry are on the increase from academia and companies along the chemicals value chain. The bulk of these reports fall under the category of improving manufacturing efficiency such as reducing use of energy and water, release of hazardous waste and costs. Here are a few representative examples of what we have seen. Merck has made strides reducing waste, increasing process efficiency, and implementing bio-catalysis (doing more with less). Amyris, a biotechnology company, is developing ways to make chemicals from biomass (such as sugar cane) using microbial engineering and thereby avoiding use of non-renewable starting materials. Along similar lines, Dow and BASF jointly commercialized a manufacturing process to make an industrial chemical that reduced water use by 70-80%, and energy use by 35%.
While these stories excite industry insiders, they rarely make it to the front pages of the NYT or WSJ. Even if they were published, they do very little for a vast majority of outsiders such as consumers, media and activists who want products that are free of controversial chemicals such as, BPA (in epoxy can coatings), Phthalates or PVC (found in blood and IV bags), Brominated Flame Retardants (home-interior products) to name a few. They have powerful backers e.g. Mega retailers such as Wal-Mart and Institutions such as Kaiser Permanente who have significant buying power. While safer alternatives have been under development and were available for more than a decade, large-scale adoption has been slow because of initial higher costs.
Secondly, it requires many changes in all parts of long and global supply chains. Take the example of Eden Organic Foods who found a BPA-free coating that worked for some foods such as beans but not for high acidity tomato sauce. Switching to different coating types for different food types means smaller market size per coating type, a disincentive for developers. Secondly, if the supply chains have to deal with multiple chemical coatings, they will need to change their machine settings and or move to newer machines, requiring capital investment. Making these changes takes a long time, costs more and requires that everyone in the value chain agrees and is able to make these changes.
Another important area in Green Chemistry is the replacement of pesticides/chemicals of concern in agriculture. Promising work is going on in Biopesticides derived from plant or microbial “pesticides” to substitute certain chemicals of concern. Small companies such as Maronne Bio Innovations and AgraQuest inCaliforniaand large companies such as Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and Monsanto have products in this area. DuPont launched a new insect repellent based on active ingredient from the catmint plant claimed to have the same efficacy as DEET. Dow Agrosciences’ Spinosad insecticide is derived from fermenting natural soil organisms. However, in many cases large-scale adoption is likely to be slow due to issues of economy of scale. Unlike traditional “broad-spectrum” products that work against a number of pests, biopesticides tend to be specific and work at one or two pests at a time. The market size per product will be smaller which in turn means higher cost per pound. Not every one will switch to higher cost products unless they are forced to do so.
Such large-scale change needs federal-level regulation, but it is not clear at this stage how, and if, regulations will be implemented. Congress indicated an interest in updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which has not changed since 1976, but it has failed to do so. Environmental advocacy and consumer groups, state and local politicians who have grown increasingly frustrated with the slow pace have pushed for increased use of state laws. One report shows that there are currently over 1,000 state and local laws and regulations on the books and each of these laws is unique in one or more respects. This situation will only hamper large-scale progress.
Going back to the question of whether green chemistry will bring society and science closer, we believe it has the potential to do so. Innovations backed by sound policies and regulations will speed up large-scale adoption, even though initially costs may go up. Experience has shown that costs will come down over time. But greening chemistry alone will not be enough. Industry needs to share in real time the pros and cons of the greener choices and not just promote the positives. People inside the fence need to include and engage folks outside the fence by explaining complex and evolving scientific information in a language that is understandable to the average citizen. Those outside the fence need to understand the difficulties of the folks inside the fence, and ultimately, learn to trust them. Open communications and dialogue will be essential for sustainable growth.
Chemical Regulation that is Good for Business and the Environment
Winners of the 2011 Green Chemistry Awards
The University of Oregon’s Interdisciplinary MBA and Green Chemistry
GE is Helping Nestle with Green Chemistry
Green Chemistry is part of an Integrative Approach to Eco-Innovation
Green Product Design Network