It's no secret that toxic and hazardous chemicals can be detrimental to ecosystems and communities around the world. Local governments, international organizations, and companies across the globe are making concerted efforts to address these toxic chemicals embedded in supply chains and shift towards safer alternatives. This deviation from the norm is no easy feat to tackle and has become a multi-faceted obstacle for countless businesses and consumers. Green chemistry is at the core of this movement to ultimately design a safer and less toxic environment.
So, What is Green Chemistry?
By definition, green chemistry is an alternative way of thinking about chemistry and chemical engineering to prevent or minimize the production of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste. Green chemistry is applicable across the life cycle of a product, from its design and manufacturing to its usage and end of life disposal. The strategies of green chemistry aim to stop pollution at its source before it ever becomes an issue.
We didn't always understand the true impact of toxic chemicals. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her book Silent Spring. Her book detailed the adverse environmental consequences brought on by the widespread use of pesticides. Average citizens and scientists alike mobilized around her outcry and the modern environmental movement was born, leading to the Green Chemistry undertaking we see today.
Acid Rain and Ozone Holes
Green chemistry might not be a top priority for very many people and is something that we subconsciously put on the back burner. The products we buy, the houses we live in, and the chemicals we use to manufacture goods must be safe, right? The answer is no, not necessarily. At the beginning of the environmental movement, the United States Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. Finally - legislation to help regulate toxic substances in our supply chains. Well, at least a start. At the inception of TSCA, there were over 62,000 chemicals in circulation, being used and traded in the market. These 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered into the TSCA inventory, allowing them to be used by manufacturers without assessing their toxicity. The number of chemicals in the TSCA catalog has grown to over 80,000 and roughly 200 of them have been required to be tested for human health effects and environmental impact. Other labs and organizations have performed countless independent tests around the world, but this level of testing tends to be expensive and time-consuming. Regulations have become more robust, and consumers are raising concerns about toxic chemicals. However, we are still very much in the early stages of establishing firm boundaries on the use of harmful chemicals.
The impacts of toxic chemicals have manifested in many tangible and quantifiable ways. Acid rain, the Antarctic Ozone Hole, clusters of people with cancer, and the bioaccumulation of DDT in wildlife are examples of chemicals accumulating in harmful ways and wreaking havoc on the global ecosystem. There are also large-scale concentrated chemical disasters such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Love Canal tragedy that were striking examples of the impact that toxic chemical can have on the environment and communities. These are just a few examples that highlight the importance of eradicating harmful substances from our supply chains, especially as manufacturers who are so often purchasing and distributing products to the public.
The Evolution of our Race to a Cleaner Standard
Getting rid of toxic substances is hard. Look around you. For me, I see the walls in my house, a window, my computer monitor, my trusty IKEA desk and chair, colorful pens, a dog bed, carpet, and so much more even lies under or within the surface of these objects. They are all made of some combination of human-made substances. Behind each item is a supply chain that comes together to create the final product. As consumers have created more demand for transparency of these supply chains and the use of safer chemicals, governments and independent organizations have created regulations, voluntary programs, and sometimes even unspoken norms for manufacturers to meet these new standards.
For some, the first step towards green chemistry is the “free of” trend. This tactic might manifest itself in advertising, product labels, or other business to business transactions. For example, packaging companies might advertise that their products are ‘free of all PFAs and BPA’ and a furniture company might announce that their wood products are ‘free of toxic adhesives and formaldehyde.’ This approach can be productive in many cases, but often leaves out information on the alternatives that are used and if they are genuinely healthier or non-toxic.
Another popular approach to addressing toxic chemicals in supply chains is product certification. Popular options include Declare Labels and Health Product Declarations (HPDs). Declare Labels are commonly referred to as the nutrition labels for products as they require the disclosure of product ingredients down to 99 percent and also screen against their pre-determined list of what they call “Red List” chemicals. HPDs go hand-in-hand with the HPD Open Standard that is a report of the health information associated with products used in the building industry. These two reports are often born out of customer or buyer demand and are a great first step toward safer products and built environments. However, these are considered to be voluntary transparency reports that detail chemicals and their potential hazards. They can surely be a great source of encouragement to lean away from toxic chemicals, but that is not a guarantee.
As governments begin to understand the seriousness of toxic substances, the next natural step towards green chemistry is stronger and more robust legislation through chemical regulation. California Proposition 65 is a commonly known initiative officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. California now maintains a list of chemicals that are known to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity. Manufacturers and businesses now must disclose this warning on their products to inform consumers of exposure risks. Another example is the European Union directive is the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS). This directive targets electronic waste and restricts the use of 10 different hazardous materials for products sold in the EU. While there is still a long road ahead, these large-scale mandates yield tangible results in the marketplace.
How can I find non-toxic products or materials?
Shopping around for alternatives to toxic chemicals can be overwhelming, but once you know what to look for, you might find it to be easier than expected.
You can start by looking for some of the things mentioned above - product labels, reports, and documentation that details where they stand for different regulations. You can also visit the websites of the manufacturers you are buying from. Do they disclose their product information and are they forthcoming about their sustainability and health initiatives? And of course, you can keep your eyes peeled for the 12 green chemistry principles. You may find that some manufacturers are making real progress in some or all of these categories to reduce the use of or disposal of toxic chemicals.
As defined by the EPA, these principles are:
- Prevent waste: Design chemical syntheses to prevent waste. Leave no waste to treat or clean up.
- Maximize atom economy: Design syntheses so that the final product contains the maximum proportion of the starting materials. Waste few or no atoms.
- Design less hazardous chemical syntheses: Design syntheses to use and generate substances with little or no toxicity to either humans or the environment.
- Design safer chemicals and products: Design chemical products that are fully effective yet have little or no toxicity.
- Use safer solvents and reaction conditions: Avoid using solvents, separation agents, or other auxiliary chemicals. If you must use these chemicals, use safer ones.
- Increase energy efficiency: Run chemical reactions at room temperature and pressure whenever possible.
- Use renewable feedstocks: Use starting materials (also known as feedstocks) that are renewable rather than depletable. The source of renewable feedstocks is often agricultural products or the wastes of other processes; the source of depletable feedstocks is often fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, or coal) or mining operations.
- Avoid chemical derivatives: Avoid using blocking or protecting groups or any temporary modifications if possible. Derivatives use additional reagents and generate waste.
- Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents: Minimize waste by using catalytic reactions. Catalysts are effective in small amounts and can carry out a single reaction many times. They are preferable to stoichiometric reagents, which are used in excess and carry out a reaction only once.
- Design chemicals and products to degrade after use: Design chemical products to break down to innocuous substances after use so that they do not accumulate in the environment.
- Analyze in real-time to prevent pollution: Include in-process, real-time monitoring and control during syntheses to minimize or eliminate the formation of byproducts.
- Minimize the potential for accidents: Design chemicals and their physical forms (solid, liquid, or gas) to minimize the potential for chemical accidents including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment.
Green chemistry is an excellent example of a movement where every little bit truly does count. While the road ahead is long, it is so very needed and worthwhile. Seeking out better, healthier, and more sustainable alternatives to toxic chemicals is more important than ever.