I recently read a blog post in a chemical trade group on LinkedIn on the anticipated surge in Green Chemicals in the Paint & Coatings industry. When I read articles and blogs about this going green, I get a great sense of professional pride for the Chemical industry. This industry has brought so much advancement and innovation to the world, but some of these advancements have turned out to be less safe than anticipated or needed. This is why these articles on Green Chemistry are important. Not only does the public need to know the chemical industry is serious about moving in this direction, but those of us inside the industry need to know and be reminded that it is a team effort and that there are many on this team.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, “Green Chemistry” I will provide some definitions. According to the EPA website, “Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances.” The American Chemical Society website defines it as, “Sustainable and green chemistry in very simple terms is just a different way of thinking about how chemistry and chemical engineering can be done. Over the years different principles have been proposed that can be used when thinking about the design, development and implementation of chemical products and processes. These principles enable scientists and engineers to protect and benefit the economy, people and the planet by finding creative and innovative ways to reduce waste, conserve energy, and discover replacements for hazardous substances. It’s important to note that the scope of these of green chemistry and engineering principles go beyond concerns over hazards from chemical toxicity and include energy conservation, waste reduction, and life cycle considerations such as the use of more sustainable or renewable feedstocks and designing for end of life or the final disposition of the product.”
Challenges to Green Chemicals and Products
In other words, it takes a holistic approach to truly achieve “Green” or safer products. What do I mean by this last statement? Raw materials and products should not be considered isolated entities when trying to measure if something is Green or not. I often think of a consumer level example to illustrate this point.
I remember years ago when all there was at the grocery store were paper bags. Then, in a well-intentioned effort to improve the environment and to not deforest our open spaces, we moved to using plastic bags. This lasted for many years until some realized the landfills were getting cluttered with these plastic bags, because they are not biodegradable. These plastic bags were also found floating around the ocean, causing damage to marine life. There was then a brief push to go back to paper bags. However, upon further consideration many realized that it used a considerably greater amount of energy, water and other resources to recycle paper bags. I read a post titled, Myth: Paper Bags Are Greener Than Plastic, where according to Northwestern University’s Eric Masanet, PhD, [the key] is to consider the impact of each part of the product’s life cycle from cradle to grave. “The science shows that moving from plastic to paper is not necessarily ‘greener,’” he says. Instead, it may simply shift the environmental impact from decreasing litter to increasing resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. This is exactly the point I am trying to make in this blog.
Going Green Takes a Team Approach
When considering a change in chemical raw materials or end-use products, we should take a wide and far viewpoint. It is very easy to latch onto the latest idea, but as you see above the end result is not always what we hope for and intend. Sometimes, it will use more resources to recycle a product than is saved. Sometimes using less of a raw material that is less safe than a newer alternative will have a greater net benefit than simply focusing on one aspect of newer technology.
I encourage those in industry, those in a regulatory role and those in politics to seek the greatest net benefit for our planet and citizens. We all have families, and we want them to be safe a healthy. We all want the members of our family to enjoy prosperous lives, so the answer to moving toward “Green Products” is to consider the net affect and all of the outcomes of the decisions we make.