Green Chemistry in the New Economy

By Ben Bezark

Green chemistry is the basis for developing healthy alternatives to the toxic materials that make up our built environment and our manufacturing processes; it's a building block of the future.

We need to work together to define the market opportunities as California products shift away from potentially toxic materials, to green alternatives, to Cradle to Cradle design.  The conversation will focus on a single question: how can we spur development of new, safe, healthy materials and products for U.S. and global markets?

Why Green Chemistry?

In virtually every material and product manufacturing process, chemistry is at play, either in the materials themselves (plastic and synthetics) or the treatments that make a product look and feel the way we expect it to (paint, solvents, softeners, hardeners, polishers). There are thousands of chemicals, and more being invented each day, for a range of industrial and commercial purposes. Many of them have toxic effects on human health, and on the health of the environment.

Green chemistry (first coined in 1991) is chemical design framework that calls for chemicals and chemical processes that are as minimally harmful to people and the environment as possible. With chemicals and chemistry so pervasive throughout the built environment, addressing sustainability at a chemical level goes to the root of the problem, as opposed to dealing with the eventual waste generated by doing things the old fashioned way. 

Cradle to Cradle eliminates the very concept of waste, showing how products can be designed for either the biological (compostable) or technical (reclaimed) cycle.  For either cycle, manufacturers must have a comprehensive inventory of what is in their product, how those materials were made, and what happens to them when the purchaser no longer wants it.  New materials, beneficial for these two cycles, is the key to a Cradle to Cradle future, and that means new, green chemistry.

Why now?

In September of 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law AB1879, the "Safe and Healthy Consumer Products Act", giving the state broader regulatory control over toxic substances found in consumer products sold in the state of California. SB509, signed at the same time, created a toxics clearinghouse, from which Californians would be able to determine the effects of substances used in consumer products.

Green chemistry offers a unique opportunity for California to once again establish itself as a leader in innovation, taking up the call, and inventing the materials of the 21st century. AB1879 will require that anyone selling products in the state of California know what materials are in those products, and to find green alternatives to the most toxic elements. The EU has had significant regulations banning toxic materials since 2006, with the most recent REACH program looking very similar to AB1879. Already manufacturers have had to shift in order to maintain a presence in the European market, and US companies may get left out.

Where is the value?

As investors increasingly turn to green tech and renewable energy to place their bets on the future, many turn to California, still a hotbed of technological innovation. An opportunity exists in promoting the innovation sector for the very materials that our society relies on.

According to investment research firm Innovest, market drivers behind adoption of green chemistry include:

  • Increasing costs of feedstocks (such as oil)
  • Growing demand for eco-efficient products
  • Public concern over toxic chemicals in consumer goods
  • Increasing numbers of scientific reports condemning the presence of toxic chemicals such as flame retardants and bisphenol A (BPA) in household products
  • Increased media attention and litigation focused on consumer exposure to toxic materials
  • Regulatory drivers (such as increasingly stringent toxic regulations in EU)

A 2007 report published by Innovest noted, "the failure to adapt [to toxic chemical concerns] leaves room for liability or, in some instances, loss of market share." The report examined the role of chemical liability in products, and cited examples of the above market drivers, as well as the increasing role of shareholder advocacy in directing company policy as regards their use of toxic chemicals.

By embracing green chemistry, investors and businesses can avoid liability, increase product quality, and take a leadership position in promoting the health of their customers and the environment.

In an article published on the ICIS website in February of 2010, Senior Investment Manager of DSM Venturing, Erik Rutten said, "Driven by climate change and alternative energy initiatives, this is a field with a lot of growth and innovation potential, which attracts lots of investors and entrepreneurs, and creates room for new ways of generating value.” (Green chemistry companies attract more investors, 2010)

Green Chemistry in the New Economy

On November 4th, business leaders, NGO's, policy makers, investors, legal council, and entrepreneurs will gather in a day-long forum to come up with some strategies aimed at developing innovation and economic growth around green chemistry principles.

The recommendations from the November 4th meeting will be presented to Governor Jerry Brown, in support of his drive to incentivize investment and job growth in the state. California is poised to once again establish tech innovation leadership, laying the path for nationwide adoption of green, safe, and healthy alternatives to toxic materials.

The Green Chemistry in the New Economy event is invitation-only, but if you feel that you would be a valuable participant, please request an invitation, briefly outlining your reasons for wanting to attend.

This event is graciously co-hosted by San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee, SF Environment, Autodesk, Bellwether Partners, EcoTech Law Group, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, OnGreen, the California Product Stewardship Council, As You Sow, and the Green Economy Think Tank.

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