Admirable Substitution: Chemistry and the circular economy

Mar 28, 2018 4:37:48 PM

Supply Chain

We recently read a New York Times opinion piece, What Poisons Are in Your Body? It made us all pause and think. The author, Nicholas Kristoff, purposely spent years of his life limiting his exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals before he wrote this post, which was based on the results of his own lab work. If he failed the tests, what hope is there for the rest of us to live free of the hazards of everyday chemicals leaching into our lives?

Green chemistry in the circular economy benefits from Toxnot

While the article tends to end on a low-note about the chemical industry and its lobbying power, it simply reminds us that there is work to be done. Too often, companies are involved in risk assessment, determining the likelihood of harm for a given exposure level of a chemical, instead of taking it to the next level and performing an alternatives assessment to find a less toxic chemical to use in prospective formulation components.

Many times, manufacturers respond to the bad press of a particular chemical (e.g. BPA was noted by the NIH to be a potent development toxin at low doses in 2008) with a knee-jerk reaction: find a replacement chemical as fast as possible to minimize disruption in manufacturing, and sell the product, with the bonus of advertising that it’s now free of the toxic chemical. These so called “drop-in” substitutions are used because, in most cases, they have such similar properties, they are chemically easy to replace.

Regrettable Substitutions

This has spawned the term “regrettable substitution” where a replacement is as bad or worse but just less researched at the time of design. For example BPA’s common and less-researched substitute, BPF, started being dropped into “BPA-Free” formulations, but is now considered equally hazardous.

Regrettable chemical alternatives have become a new reality that consumers have grown weary of. It’s time to take a few steps forward and find admirable substitutions- ones that allow your product to be best-in-class for your consumers without risking health impacts for them or your supply chain workers. This method goes beyond determining the potential for harm at different doses. It involves taking a wider view of your product formulations and using a broad alternatives assessment approach to eliminate hazardous substances in design.

Utilizing a scoring system such as the EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredient List, Cleangredients or the independent GreenScreen™ or an in-house methodology, allows you to easily compare alternatives. The information is out there and getting easier to access; use it to create more sustainable products for both human and environmental health.

Risk and Compliance 

With less government oversight comes less regulatory risks, but it creates a significant risk that customers will no longer simply assume that unregulated products are ‘safe’. As the landscape is changing, so should your approach. Consumers and NGOs will now be leading the charge to request companies to reduce unintended harm. And consumer safety is just one factor, as the focus on circular economy approaches grow, so too does the pressure on companies to take responsibility for chemical risks at every stage in their products lifecycle, including sometimes unintended use or reuse.

Today, there are more solutions than ever for managing chemical hazards proactively- from in-house teams to consultants to software options.

Assess how your company is doing with hazards screening and alternatives assessment and where it can easily improve to meet growing consumer demands. Toxnot is here to help improve health and sustainability across the global supply chain with insight about the chemicals and materials that go into them. From customizable supplier surveys to a chemical hazards database with over 40,000 chemicals to compare, our software is already used by hundreds of companies across the world and can help your company to find admirable substitutions.

Major retailers are already introducing transparency initiatives. Walmart, Home Depot, and most recently, Costco, have launched a safer chemical policies to better understand what goes into the products on their shelves. Amazon, Walgreens and Staples are expected to launch similar programs later this year. Product designers and suppliers are being held accountable.

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