I went to the Green Chemistry Symposium in Portland on Friday and learned a lot about what government agencies and private companies are doing to replace toxic products with safer, greener alternatives.
Oregon has has been recognized for playing a leading role the green chemistry field – thanks in large part to research programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon Health and Science University. Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a green chemistry executive order in April directing state agencies to buy less toxic products and to encourage businesses to do the same. And the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has a toxics reduction strategy that includes removing a list of toxic chemicals from products and the waste stream statewide.
Many of the speakers at Friday’s event agreed that fighting to ban toxic chemicals one by one isn’t the best way to promote green chemistry. Instead, they found ways to promote less-toxic alternatives that work just as well if not better.
“We should make the current technologies obsolete,” said Staples Senior Scientist Roger McFadden. “Focusing on what we want things to look like is so much more constructive than battling chemical by chemical, regulation by regulation, state by state.”
“An Extraordinary Dearth Of Information”
Dr. Michael Wilson of the University of California - Berkeley, was the keynote speaker for the event, which drew about 80 people to the Ambridge Event Center.
The crux of the problem with toxic chemicals being used in products today, he said, is the lack of information about exactly which chemicals are going into which products.
Chemical production is growing 3 percent a year worldwide – faster than population growth. Meanwhile, more than 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants have been detected in umbilical blood, he said – including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which were phased out of commercial use in 1976. And thousands of workers are injured or killed by exposure to toxic chemicals on the job.
“There is an enormous mass of material moving through commerce and society,” he said. “Given the scale and pace of production, it is extraordinarily important that we understand the nature of these products and how they travel through the environment and end up in people. And what we’re facing today is an extraordinary dearth of information.”
“The fact that you don’t have to disclose real hazard information to downstream buyers means that health and environment are extraordinarily undervalued in the market.”He blames the Toxic Substances Control Act, in part, for not requiring chemical companies to disclose the ingredients in their products.
“The fact that you don’t have to disclose real hazard information to downstream buyers means that health and environment are extraordinarily undervalued in the market,” he said.
Wilson said law and policy should incentivize green chemistry because it isn’t happening enough on a voluntary basis.
“Until policies make it a competitive advantage to invest real money in designing safer molecules and safer products, green chemistry is going to remain on the margins because it’s a hard thing to do,” he said. “It takes investment in science and technology, and it’s not clear that it’s going to sell. Companies are reluctant to take the leap, and sales are booming in existing chemicals.”
Banning toxic chemicals – bisphenol A, or BPA for example – doesn’t really work because oftentimes the replacement for the banned chemical is toxic too.
Wilson suggested two alternatives to banning toxic chemicals, both of which are happening in Oregon: One, government can collect product ingredient information and promote green chemistry. And two, downstream businesses can pressure their chemical suppliers to use green chemistry.
Three case studies presented at Friday’s event illustrate how these ideas could work:
Staples Makes A ‘Bad Actor’ List
Roger McFadden, senior scientist for Staples, Inc., explained how his company has pressured its suppliers to reduce toxic chemicals in what he called “a race to the top.”
Staples challenged its top 25 suppliers to reduce packaging and remove chemicals on a restricted substance or “bad actor” list.
“I picked those words on purpose to get people’s attention,” he said. “And it worked.”
McFadden drew up a chemistry policy for Staples that called attention to specific chemicals with “hazard traits.”
“We ask our suppliers to report back to us the chemicals that have one or multiples of these traits,” he siad. “Not with the idea that we’re going to punish them or report them to the authorities, but that we can only begin to prioritize these substances if we understand what they are.”
He said companies should be considering green chemistry in the product design stage ”and Staples can help because we have the ability to buy a lot at one time.”
Working with suppliers to replace hazardous substances with safer alternatives is a form of regulating, he said.
“But we’re doing it in a contractual relationship,” he said. “We as a company can take these positions without having to pass it through both houses (of Congress).”
Nike Makes Its Own Green Rubber
John Frazier, director of sustainable chemistry for Nike, offered another case study. But his company, in addition to creating a list of toxic substances to avoid actually went ahead and developed its own less toxic alternatives.
The first success story was environmentally preferred rubber. The company identified five chemicals in its original shoe rubber that are hazardous and worked to eliminate them.
In the original rubber, those five toxic chemicals made up 12 percent of the product by weight. The “green rubber” that Nike created has only one of the five chemicals in it, and that chemical makes up only 1 percent of the product by weight.
“That’s 96 percent fewer toxics – 3,000 metric tons,” he said.
“You have to make sure you don’t lose performance and make sure you don’t put yourself at a competitive disadvantage business-wise.”The company was also successful in reducing zinc in its shoes. Using zinc meant emitting 340 grams of volatile organic compounds for every pair of shoes during the manufacturing process.
But Nike engineers discovered the zinc wasn’t really that essential to the shoes.
“It was there because it’s always been there,” said Frazier.
Nike engineers were able to remove 80 to 90 percent of the zinc in the shoe manufacturing process – reducing toxic emissions from 340 grams per pair in 1995 to 15 grams in 2006.
“It’s a huge difference,” Frazier said. “The consumer will never notice it, but the workers in the factories could tell the difference.”
It wasn’t easy to change those products, he said.
“These things are technical. You have to work with engineering teams. You have to make sure you don’t lose performance and make sure you don’t put yourself at a competitive disadvantage businesswise.”
Metro Takes Stock Of Toxic Products
Lisa Heigh, senior solid waste planner for Metro, explained the long process she’s gone through to establish a toxics reduction program for her sprawling agency.
First, she had to inventory around 3,000 chemical products currently being used in all of Metro’s different buildings and departments – including the Zoo.
Then she did an assessment of those chemicals to see how many were hazardous.
“Our initial inventory revealed 51 confirmed or probable carcinogens, 11 developmental toxicants, and 20 chemicals listed from the Portland Multnomah County Priority Chemical list,” she said. “For 15 percent of them, we did not have enough information to make an assessment.”
“We know now where all the products are being used. Next we will identify products that need to go, figure out who uses them and go talk to them.”She put the list of products into a database with safety information so employees can check the risk of using them. Her next challenge is to get employees to choose less toxic alternatives when making their purchasing decisions.
That could be tough because employees have their own credit cards and make their own purchasing decisions. So, her plan is to add green chemistry education to the mandated training each employee has to go through when they get a credit card.
“We know now where all the products are being used,” she said. “Next we will identify products that need to go, figure out who uses them and go talk to them. I have been amazed at how difficult it is. You have to get leadership on board and build relationships.”