The search for greener chemicals has, in just a few short years, moved from a mission to a mandate.
Spawned by a confluence of regulations, litigation, competitive pressures, and corporate missions, the world of "green chemistry" seems to be going mainstream. And -- as with alternative energy and other clean technologies -- the United States is falling behind its European and Asian brethren, which are more aggressively pushing green-chemistry agendas.
"Green chemistry," as I've written previously, refers to the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. As with most things "green," there's no universal standard -- Is a chemical "green" if one reduces its toxicity a little bit or a lot? We don't know -- but with a bevy of scientific organizations getting involved, the peer-review process is likely to keep abuses in check.
Example: green chemistry was a featured topic last month at the 231st national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. Topics ranged from "Expanding the horizons of green chemistry in chemical education" to "A greener approach to hexakisarylbenzenes". (ACS's Green Chemistry Institute maintains a separate Web site on the topic.)
Also last month, a report (PDF) by the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley urged the state of California to establish a framework for policies "designed to motivate industry investment in the design and use of chemicals that are less toxic, do not accumulate in the body, and break down more readily in the environment." The report says that greater incentives for innovation are needed to motivate industry leaders and entrepreneurs to invest in green chemistry. These include improvements in information on chemical toxicity, enhanced regulatory oversight, and greater funding for green chemistry research.
One could make a case that America is addicted not just to oil, but to toxins. According to the U.C. report:
Every day, the U.S. produces or imports 42 billion pounds of chemicals, 90% of which are created using oil, a non-renewable feedstock. Converted to gallons of water, this volume is the equivalent of 623,000 gasoline tanker trucks (each carrying 8,000 gallons), which would reach from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and back if placed end-to-end. In the course of a year, this line would circle the earth 86 times at the equator.
Moreover, it says, "Global chemical production is expected to double every 25 years for the foreseeable future."
The report notes that the U.S. already has fallen behind globally in the move toward green chemistry. The European Union, for instance, has passed landmark legislation that mandates environmentally safer materials. One law, the Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment, is intended to encourage the use of new materials in electronic products that are easier to handle during recycling and recovery; it makes manufacturers who sell electronic products in the EU responsible for reducing electronic waste.
A second EU law, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, bars the use of hazardous substances, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, in electrical and electronic equipment sold in the European Union. A proposed third piece of legislation, the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) framework, will require EU producers and importers to submit toxicity and use information for about 30,000 chemicals, and it introduces an authorization procedure for the use of up to 1,400 very hazardous chemicals.
All of these are pushing European companies to innovate, designing new products and manufacturing processes that use fewer problematic chemicals. Most U.S.-based multinationals are manufacturing to the EU standard. But there are thousands of U.S. companies that don't meet these tough restrictions.
Indeed, as the U.C. report points out, a relatively weak U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has provided little incentive for U.S. manufacturers to invest in green chemistry technologies. (This, despite the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actively promotes green chemistry -- yet another example of the government's faith-based environmentalism.) For instance, the TSCA has not required chemical producers to generate and make public toxicity and exposure information for some 99% of synthetic chemicals currently in commercial use. Many of these contribute to the childhood diseases of asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders, and certain cancers. (See this earlier posting on the chemical industry's persistant lack of efforts to develop greener alternatives.)
These companies aren't just hurting the public -- they're hurting themselves. As I reported recently:
Investor groups, especially pension funds, are beginning to partner with activist environmental and health groups to demand greater accountability in companies' management of toxic materials. Shareholder resolutions on the topic used to be limited to major chemical companies, but are now showing up at annual meetings of companies selling everything from cosmetics (Avon) to computers (Apple).
The U.C. report notes that a number of leading California businesses, including Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Intel, HP, Apple, and IBM, are working to implement chemical policies to avoid the use of toxic substances -- all of which signals "a growing demand among U.S. businesses for safer chemicals and better chemical information."
To help these and other companies, the report recommends three policy goals:
- Close the Data Gap: Ensure that chemical producers generate, distribute, and communicate information on chemical toxicity, ecotoxicity, uses, and other key data.
- Close the Safety Gap: Strengthen government tools for identifying, prioritizing, and mitigating chemical hazards.
- Close the Technology Gap: Support research, development, technical assistance, entrepreneurial activity, and education in green chemistry science and technology.
Of course, to ensure success, we'll first have to close the Ignorance Gap.