|August 20, 2007|
Green Chemistry: Changing an Industry
|Source: by Jeremy Faludi, WorldChanging|
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?
"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 wasteMost 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.