Cleaning the Cleaning Industry: The Truth About Green Chemistry
I have been working to clean up the chemicals industry from the inside the better part of 30 years. As a biologist, grandfather and former teacher, I am deeply concerned with keeping people clean and safe and keeping the planet clean and safe too. This brought me to be an advocate for the Green Chemistry movement.
Attitudes in the industry have changed a lot in my three decades since I moved from teaching science to business. Some of the younger people who were students when I started my business have since gone on to leadership positions in the chemical industry. With this generation and the ones that follow them, they share a strong belief that the best way to advocate for change is to do it from the inside, preferably from a leadership position.
If you are going to be serious about creating a sustainable connection between society and the planet then you must embrace chemicals. Chemicals are not inherently good or bad. Some pollute, and some save lives, and many do both.
The reflex that natural equals good and man-made equals bad is not true and not helpful in keeping the planet healthy. Chances are, a product I provided kept you from getting sick at some point. My company deals in thousands of products which aid in keeping everything from restaurants to hospitals to hotels clean. The larger danger in most of these settings is not unnatural contaminates; it is bacteria just doing what nature created them to do and making us sick or worse as a byproduct.
Interestingly, so many people protesting on weekends with “science doesn’t care what you believe shirts” signs will quickly attack everything from chemicals to GMO to nuclear power to gene editing without the backing of independent research and thought they claim to champion. This begs the question of whether science can be “good or evil.” To me, science just ‘is.’ It is rational and real and fact. How we leverage it for good or evil is separate in the same way that a stick can be used to build shelter or to crush skulls.
I am a small businessman in a small town called Calverton in New York. I try hard to push for green product offerings and to emphasize new, environmentally friendly products. So, I am an advocate for Green Chemistry but find that it isn’t what most people think it is. Green Chemistry does not lead to exclusively “natural” products nor does it generate products which are incapable of leaving a carbon footprint or polluting. Green Chemistry is a pragmatic approach to improving the chemicals industry by making environmental concerns a part of the Chemical industry’s decision-making process.
First, Green Chemistry wants to reduce toxicity through better design. An important element of this is seeking to reduce the need for auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) to use new chemicals. It also emphasizes natural methods of production and reducing the energy requirements of production by conducting it at ambient temperature and pressure if possible.
Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment. Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances. Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.
If these seem practical to you, then I agree. But Green Chemistry does allow for cost-benefits and doesn’t prevent potentially hazardous materials. Frankly, that is impossible. But how we reduce the impact and then prevent those hazards from affecting the environment is left to handling and police though environmental laws.
Some have criticized Green Chemistry as not going far enough and seek to enact greater legislation to enforce less toxic chemicals and processes. But I think there are good arguments for supporting the industry’s attempts to clean itself up. For starters, legislation always suffers from some shortcomings. Anyone who wants to compare the environmental philosophy of Donald Trump to Barack Obama will understand that it is impossible to divorce politics from legislation and enforcement. Also, legislation always lags innovation (or slows it), and too much harm has been done waiting for politicians to catch up with industry.
Painting the chemicals industry as anti-environmental is defeatist and only encourages those who care about the planet to avoid working in or engaging with the industry. Those of us who want environmentally responsible chemicals should not cede this critical industry to those who do not care about the Planet. That isn’t good for the environment and isn’t good for people either.