Chemistry for Sustainability

A week or so ago I noticed the printing in the photo above in the lining of a pair of jeans I recently purchased. The image is a little difficult to make out, but the printing reads: “The water used in the process of washing & dying these jeans has been specially treated to ensure it is safe & clean when it leaves the factory.” I immediately had really mixed feelings about the message this label was delivering. On one hand, I was very happy that my jeans company was not polluting waterways. On the other hand, I quickly wondered what in the world they are using to dye my jeans with and why they would use a product that obviously is not safe for release into the environment without further treatment. Further, if more dye comes off in my washing machine and is not treated am I polluting my local waterways?! My region notoriously has combined sewers that are prone to overflow- my wastewater could very well be going directly into the Ohio River. Yikes!

Since seeing this printing in my jeans I have been thinking more and more about the role that chemicals and chemistry play in the sustainability of the products we use every day and the products that I specify in the buildings I am designing. Chemicals have so many potential effects from resource extraction for production to human health impacts during use and environmental impacts in use and in disposal that it’s mind boggling to even begin pondering all of their impacts on humans and the environment. I turned to the EPA as a starting point for identifying some of the issues surrounding chemicals and sustainability. According to a two page brief the EPA has put together on “Green Chemistry” (available by clicking here) there are 12 “principles” of green chemistry. I have copied these directly from the brief:

  1. Prevention: It’s better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste afterwards.
  2. Atom Economy: Design synthetic methods to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.
  3. Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses: Design synthetic methods to use and generate substances that minimize toxicity to human health and the environment.
  4. Designing Safer Chemicals: Design chemical products to affect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.
  5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries: Minimize the use of auxiliary substances wherever possible and make them innocuous when used.
  6. Design for Energy Efficiency: Minimize the energy requirements of chemical processes and conduct synthetic methods at ambient temperature and pressure if possible.
  7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks: Use renewable raw material or feedstock whenever practicable.
  8. Reduce Derivatives: Minimize or avoid unnecessary derivatization if possible, which requires additional reagents and generate waste.
  9. Catalysis: Catalytic reagents are superior to stoichiometric reagents.
  10. Design for Degradation: Design chemical products so they break down into innocuous products that do not persist in the environment.
  11. Real-time Analysis for Pollution Prevention: Develop analytical methodologies needed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.
  12. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention: Choose substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

So, how are chemical companies responding to the idea of more sustainable chemicals? I had the opportunity to talk not to long ago with a representative from BASF about what his company is doing and was impressed with some of the issues they are trying to get a handle on, especially as they relate to life cycle assessment and product declarations for their chemicals (click here for data on their sustainability initiatives). A quick web search also reveled that other big companies like DOW and ExxonMobil Chemical have sustainability plans in place (click here for DOW or here for ExonMobil). I’m not convinced, though, that consumers or designers have a grip yet on the powerful impacts that chemistry has and do not yet know the right questions to ask in order to make the most sustainable choices. Thankfully, I know that people are working on these issues. The Cradle to Cradle certification process and some building certification systems like the Living Building Challenge are working to identify and avoid “red-list chemical” or “chemicals of concern”. Elsewhere, environmental product declarations (EPDs) are aiming to take a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach to quantifying environmental impacts of our products and the chemicals they contain and make communicating these impacts to consumers more standardized. I am eagerly awaiting the day when I can really know the true impacts of the chemistry involved in the products I use!


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