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Environmentally Benign Products: a Green Chemistry Mentor Speaks

July 27, 2011

Tags:  Warner Babcock Institute, Beyond Benign Foundation, John Warner, Ph.D. 

It is not unusual to find a chemical, pharma, or other manufacturing company that spends almost as much on environmental and regulatory compliance as it does on making its products.   Think of it: the typical company, in producing an  environmentally harmful product, willingly saddles itself with a greatly increased total cost of doing business.  They pay to mitigate, dispose, transport, handle, manage, and bring production facilities and products into regulatory compliance.  And the end product remains a real or potential hazard.

Imagine this alternative:   Your organization designs an environmentally benign product using non-hazardous processes and ingredients. Your product easily complies with regs, and has a neutral or beneficial environmental impact.   In saving money on producing it, you can price it lower and still have a healthy profit margin.  You enjoy competitive advantage, customer loyalty, and a cleaner, safer planet.

This might seem like a pipe dream, and indeed it represents a departure from current practice in many cases, but is it possible?  In a word: yes.   This article will cite a few examples later, but first, let’s ask: how far upstream does this problem exist?  What are the symptoms?  The solutions?  Let’s just take academia, for starters.  Consider that until recent years, virtually none of the U.S.’ prominent chemical degree granting colleges made any effort to include “Green” chemistry in the curriculum.  If you wanted to become a chemist, you simply accepted that you’d be creating harmful products for a living.   Even under strict safety conditions, you expected you’d expose yourself to new and unknown chemical hazards – without a standard definition of what makes a chemical toxic.  Thanks to the Warner Babcock Institute, that is all changing.  More about them shortly.  

The U.S. Plays Catch-up

Oh, and if you’re concerned about China and other developing nations becoming bigger polluters, relax.  It’s not them, it’s us.  In terms of sustainability practice, China is way ahead of developed nations like the US.   Their regulatory, educational and business practice infrastructure are, comparatively speaking, Green from the get-go.

An Expert Weighs In

At a July 27, 2011 Sustainability forum meeting of the North Shore Technology Council, featured speaker Dr. John Warner, President and CTO of Warner Babcock Institute  (WBI), spoke of his organization’s progress in helping businesses reduce and eliminate environmental hazards at the R&D stage, and helping academia transform their chemical engineering programs to include Green chemistry precepts.  The results thus far: according to several college sources, including UC Berkeley, virtually every ChemE with a Green chemistry background has to fend off competing job offers – in arguably the toughest job market in nearly a century.  American business is waking up, thankfully.  Speaking of American business, read “Success Stories” below.

Dr. Warner, one of the founders of the field of Green chemistry and co-author of the definitive text “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice“, went on to note that the US lags in several key areas.   In paraphrasing the words of the US EPA‘s directorate, he observed that US regulation ironically focuses more on telling industry what not to do, and less on what to do. Dr. Warner’s Warner Babcock Institute, and the work of the Institute’s Beyond Benign Foundation, aim to reverse that – and they’re making great progress.    Meanwhile, across town in our nation’s capitol,  a bill co-authored by Dr. Warner, HR 2850: Green Chemistry R&D Act of 2007, while currently stalled in Congress, is up for re-submittal.

The Business Case

What is the scope of the opportunity?  According to Dr. Warner, the business case for Green chemistry goes like this.   WBI estimates that of all the products and processes in existence, roughly 10% are benign in nature, i.e. they neither employ nor produce environmentally harmful outputs.   Another 25% of current products and processes could be made benign relatively easily.   The remaining 65% of products and processes have no benign alternatives.  These numbers illustrate the scope of the opportunity.  Eighty percent of products and processes today are excessive in cost, once you factor in the compliance, remediation, disposal, management and environmental compliance expense. Eliminate or reduce those hazards in your product ingredients and processes, and you drop the cost of compliance, risk management, environmental mediation and health impacts.

Regulatory Policy’s Unintended Consequences

Dr. Warner illustrated the irony of compliance and policy as societal inputs with unintended consequences, citing the example of a recent Washington State regulation prohibiting the use of fire extinguishers containing a certain banned chemical.   Ironically, sale of fire extinguishers containing that banned chemical soared after the regulation was instituted, simply because the regulation provided that such toxic products could be permissible if they could be proven as the best available alternative.   Clearly, this is a supply problem, not a demand problem.  There is plenty of demand for fire extinguishers, but the supply of benign alternatives is nil, facilitating “loophole” compliance for the hazardous alternative simply because it has proven to be the best available alternative.

Success Stories

Fortunately, re-jiggering an industrial R&D lab is not expensive, but it does take focused effort.   Among some of the product alternatives already developed or co-developed by WBI and currently finding their way into the marketplace:

  • ultra low-cost non-toxic solar power generation equipment
  • non-toxic environmentally benign hair coloring products
  • water-based non-toxic photoresist cleaning solutions (used in semiconductor manufacturing)

…and more.  For a technology to be considered Green Chemistry, WBI says it must accomplish three things:

  • it must be more environmentally benign than existing alternatives
  • it must be more economically viable than existing alternatives
  • it must be functionally equivalent or outperform existing alternatives

Getting Started

Think: What does it cost you to invent, make, sell, service your products, and comply with governmental regulation? What costs can you save by doing the basic and applied research using Green methods to research, develop and produce environmentally benign products?  If you’re unsure how to get started, contact the experts at Warner Babcock Institute.  Whatever the size of your market opportunity, this call is worth the dime.

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