0
Facebook
Volume 86 Issue 33 | pp. 47-56
Issue Date: August 18, 2008

Cover Stories: Sustainability

Converging Pathways

Chemical companies and environmentalists edge closer together in the pursuit of sustainability
Department: Business | Collection: Sustainability
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
COME TOGETHER
New water-based acrylic binders from Rohm and Haas replace solvent-based binders in coatings that protect metal and concrete structures.
Credit: Rohm and Haas
8633cov2_opencxd_opt
 
COME TOGETHER
New water-based acrylic binders from Rohm and Haas replace solvent-based binders in coatings that protect metal and concrete structures.
Credit: Rohm and Haas

COULD THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY—the people who brought us DDT, Bhopal, the ozone hole, and plastic bag litter—become the source of more sustainable manufacturing, commerce, and lifestyles? That's what chemical company executives would have us believe.

The argument goes like this. For a world seeking fossil-fuel-free energy, chemical companies have the polymers to make windmills lighter and the materials to make solar panels cheaper and more efficient. For consumers trying to use less heating oil and gasoline, the industry offers lightweight plastics and insulation. And for countries desperate for clean drinking water, chemical companies make purification chemicals and membranes.

What's interesting is that more and more people in the environmental community concede that the industry has a point. They acknowledge that the world continues to add new consumers at a breakneck pace and will need technological breakthroughs if it is going to conserve resources and stave off a greenhouse effect that already seems to be taking its toll.

Environmentalists aren't letting the industry off the hook. They point to legacy problems that haven't been solved and to practices they say must be stopped if chemical companies are going to be credible participants in the drive for a sustainable world. But many have concluded that there's more to gain by cooperating with industry than by continuing to fight it.

The chemical industry and its critics have long differed on their basic understanding of what sustainability requires. For environmentalists, sustainability has meant more regulation of production and less consumption of products. Sacrifice is involved. Chemical companies, on the other hand, see sustainability as an opportunity—both for a cleaner, greener world and for bigger sales and profits.

Neil C. Hawkins, Dow Chemical's vice president for sustainability, is adamant about this. "We always view sustainability as a business opportunity," he says. "Where you might see discussion or controversy, we see potential opportunity." Ask him if becoming more sustainable might ever mean making less of something and he doesn't seem to understand the question.

He does understand, of course, but as far as Hawkins is concerned, every product Dow makes is used because it's needed and safe to the environment if used correctly. And if a customer rejects a Dow product because he or she sees it as unsustainable or undesirable for some other reason, well, that's an opportunity for Dow to sell a newer, better product.

For Greenpeace and other traditional activist groups, chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride, phthalates, and nonylphenol ethoxylates are not just old-line chemicals that can be used safely. They are diabolical substances that are poisoning Earth and the people who live on it.

Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is the recipient of a lot of the criticism. The Center for Health, Environment & Justice calls PVC "one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created." According to the Falls Church, Va.-based group, PVC is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle—from the factory, to the home, and even into the trash.

FOR YEARS, the industry and critics like these kept to their corners, coming out occasionally to spar over another chemical. Referees such as politicians, regulators, and the courts rarely seemed to help matters. The pace of change was glacial—the Environmental Protection Agency has not banned a single chemical since 1989—and the result never seemed to be a greener or more sustainable planet.

These days, though, new referees are stepping into the ring and are trying to change the rules of the game. They want to make it less of a fight with a winner and a loser and more like a children's game where everyone wins.

Some of these referees are the chemical industry's customers and its customers' customers. Using the carrot of the dollar rather than the stick of the law, big retailers and high-profile consumer product makers are compelling the industry to supply friendly chemicals that shrink their environmental footprint, make their operations more sustainable, and generally improve their green credentials in the eyes of the public and the press.

Others are from a new breed of nonprofit group that is advising companies on sustainability. Unlike many traditional environmental organizations, these groups seek to engage the industry rather than sue it. The Jimmy Carters of the environmental world, they are willing to work with imperfect companies and strike agreements that would go against the principles of their more strident counterparts.

The time may be right for a new spirit of cooperation. Many industry executives seem genuinely concerned about the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—and the fact that rapid industrialization in China and India will only create more. Some of them even acknowledge that continued extraction of metals and hydrocarbons from Earth's crust is not a sustainable way to feed, clothe, and shelter the almost 7 billion people on the planet.

It's not that the old arguments over the safety of chemicals aren't important anymore. But Paul Tebo, an architect of sustainable thinking at DuPont and now an independent consultant, says the environmental profile of the industry's products has improved. Soon, he adds, they will get further scrutiny under Europe's REACH program for the registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemicals—and under whatever U.S. version of the program eventually emerges.

Moreover, as critical as chemical safety is, Tebo argues that it is being eclipsed by the issues of carbon dioxide emissions and natural resource availability. Phasing out bad actor chemicals alone, he says, is "not going to make the world sustainable, particularly when we have this big gorilla sitting out here called climate change. That may be the problem of our generation, and it's closely followed by potable water, food, and the 4 billion people who live in poverty."

According to Tebo, some environmental groups have yet to recognize the importance of this shift. "The environmental community made a huge contribution in moving the industry in the early days," he says. "But many of them, including Greenpeace in the U.S., have petered out. The smarter ones are looking at industry and helping it to change."

Sensing change in the air, the specialty chemical maker Rohm and Haas is seeking out such help. Executives at the Philadelphia-based firm have decided to try to better understand sustainability, and even to embrace it in a more holistic way than would come naturally to the chemists and engineers that work in its offices, labs, and manufacturing plants.

Alan Barton, Rohm and Haas's director for the Americas, believes his company always has had a good environmental track record, in its own science geek way. For years, it regularly came up with new, better-for-the-environment products such as acrylic polymers for aqueous coatings and environmentally friendlier biocides for paint preservation.

But between growing evidence of climate change, mounting costs for basic raw materials, and rising pollution in the developing world, company executives began to question whether that approach was sufficient. "What became clear to us in our strategic thinking process was that the world and the stakes were changing—and changing very rapidly," Barton says. "The world had changed, and our approach had not. We started to think we needed some outside help."

In January, Rohm and Haas formed an alliance with The Natural Step, a Swedish nonprofit group that develops science-based techniques for integrating business with sustainable development. According to Barton, who is leading Rohm and Haas's participation in the initiative, 100 of the company's senior leaders are attending workshops where they are learning more about The Natural Step's methodology and exploring answers to the question: What will Rohm and Haas look like in a sustainable world?

The Natural Step was founded in 1989 by a Swedish cancer scientist, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, who wanted to end the intractable environmental battles by employing a scientific understanding of the systemic causes of problems. He came up with four sustainability principles: Nature should not be subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from Earth's crust, to high concentrations of substances produced by society, or to physical degradation. And people should not be subject to conditions that undermine their capacity to meet their basic needs.

Rohm and Haas encountered The Natural Step in 2005 when the company was invited by Hydro Polymers, a British PVC producer and a buyer of Rohm and Haas additives, to learn more about sustainability. Hydro, in turn, had worked with The Natural Step since the late 1990s in response to debates over PVC that had been simmering in the U.K.

[+]Enlarge
Corn Is In
A joint venture between DuPont and Tate & Lyle makes the polymer intermediate propanediol out of corn sugar rather than petrochemicals.
Credit: DuPont
8633cov2_DuPontcxd_opt
 
Corn Is In
A joint venture between DuPont and Tate & Lyle makes the polymer intermediate propanediol out of corn sugar rather than petrochemicals.
Credit: DuPont

THE SWEDISH group had entered the debate on behalf of retailers who were trying to figure out what to do about the activists picketing their stores because they stocked products packaged in PVC. As David Cook, The Natural Step's chief executive officer, recalls, "retailers had been pushed, really, into declaring a ban on PVC in the products they sold, and in discussions it became clear that they didn't understand why."

Cook, who ran The Natural Step's British operations at the time, says he and his colleagues pulled together a group of interested parties ranging from Greenpeace to retailers to plastics manufacturers in an attempt to answer a basic question: Does PVC have a place in a sustainable society?

The group's conclusion was that it could, but that manufacturers first had to commit to meeting five steep challenges: becoming carbon-neutral, developing the means of recycling used PVC into new PVC, stopping the release of persistent organic compounds, phasing out additives such as lead that can accumulate in nature, and raising awareness across industry about sustainable development.

Greenpeace left the discussion soon after The Natural Step released the challenges, claiming they were unattainable. Other participants stuck with it, however, and Hydro spent several years on projects for recycling PVC, replacing harmful additives, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

For Cook, Hydro's progress demonstrates the advantages of working with industry rather than against it. "Greenpeace is rooted in environmental issues—and that's great," he says. "But the debate has moved on. It's no longer adequate simply to deal with the environment. We must take into account economic and social development as well."

A DECADE AFTER British retailers were pilloried by protesters, American retail chains are facing similar attacks. Last fall, Target responded by announcing that it was "intensively assessing our use of PVC and the viability of alternatives." Sears and other stores have likewise said they are seeking to reduce their use of PVC in packaging and household products such as shower curtains.

Indeed, the debate over the role of PVC in a sustainable society is emblematic of the divisions that still exist between the chemical industry and other interest groups. What's new, however, is recognition of a potentially greater environmental problem—global climate change—and the related economic problem of fossil fuel dependence. Also new is the cadre of nontraditional environmental groups looking to solve problems by encouraging, rather than bullying, industry into becoming more sustainable.

One of these is GreenBlue, a Charlottesville, Va., nonprofit launched in 2002 as an outgrowth of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a for-profit sustainable products and process design consultancy cofounded by American architect William A. McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart. GreenBlue's stated aim is to make commercial activity ecologically and socially sound through creative use of product design.

Jason Pearson, the firm's CEO, is an architect who entered that profession wanting, naively he now realizes, to design buildings that would enhance the communities in which they were built. "What I found is that architects are bound by the questions that clients ask," he says. "I was hoping their questions would be about community and public benefit, but many of them weren't interested in those questions."

By joining GreenBlue, Pearson became the one asking the questions—only now the questions are about chemicals and materials, not architecture. "We've expanded the definition of design to chemical products at the molecular scale," he says.

One of GreenBlue's initiatives is CleanGredients, a program to help formulators of industrial and institutional cleaning products identify surfactants that have potential environmental and human health benefits. Tellingly, it also provides surfactant manufacturers the opportunity to showcase such ingredients. Initial funding for the program came from EPA's 15-year-old Design for the Environment initiative; today CleanGredients sponsors include the cleaning products heavyweights Henkel and Reckitt Benckiser.

Complementing its surfactants program, the group just launched a solvents program and is developing ones for fragrances, chelating agents, and the detergent sequestering agents known as builders. By the middle of 2009, Pearson says, it should have a big enough repertoire that a formulator could make an entire cleaning product with CleanGredients-listed ingredients.

Another GreenBlue program is the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), a member-supported group of more than 100 companies—including major players such as DuPont, Dow, and ExxonMobil Chemical—involved in packaging and packaging raw materials. SPC's vision is of a world where all packaging is sourced responsibly, is designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, meets market criteria for performance and cost, is made entirely with renewable energy, and can be recycled efficiently. The group pushes its members toward this goal with eight packaging criteria that blend sustainability objectives with business considerations.

Yet, according to Pearson, SPC is and will remain material neutral, and it doesn't take a stand on the sustainability of PVC or any other individual product. In its reviews of packaging materials, it won't hesitate to point out shortcomings—such as frequent use of harmful additives, in the case of PVC—but it also acknowledges a product's advantages and doesn't give individual materials an overall thumbs up or thumbs down.

"It's our firm belief that we can get to the best answers if we don't jump to conclusions," Pearson says. He makes the distinction between the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and a car review in Consumer Reports magazine. "Rather than say one material is better or worse, we help decisionmakers understand the options," he says.

SPC provides this help with packaging-design software, training courses, and detailed environmental briefs on specific materials such as glass, aluminum, PVC, and polyethylene. At trade shows and other meetings, the group displays one-page reports on how specific packaging materials measure up to the eight criteria.

Analyses are nuanced and not necessarily what would be expected from an environmental group. Steel cans, for example, get many high marks, mainly for their recyclability and well-evolved design. Drawing fewer positive marks is a DuPont ethylene copolymer that increases the flexibility of the biopolymer polylactic acid. It isn't biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable.

Although SPC and CleanGredients are distinctly cooperative with industry, Pearson readily acknowledges the debt they owe to the traditional environmental community. "I have no doubt that many of the firms in SPC wouldn't be doing it without advocacy organizations, legislators, et cetera to push them there," he says.

But once pushed, these companies need to know where to land. "Advocacy organizations don't see it as their job to help with a solution. Their job is to identify a problem," Pearson says. "We do see that as our job." He recalls talking to a member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an advocacy group working to steer personal care companies away from unsafe ingredients. The group was beginning to succeed but found itself getting asked, "Where can I find better chemicals?" That's the question CleanGredients wants to answer.

Target, the number five U.S. retailer, has been a member of the packaging coalition since 2005. John Butcher, Target's director for owned brands and packaging, says one of SPC's biggest accomplishments has been to build a consensus around a comprehensive definition of sustainable packaging.

The year after it joined, Target formed a team of engineers and print buyers charged with determining the best packaging for each of the firm's in-house brands and products. "This team has allowed us to gain more control over the quality and consistency of packaging and to directly affect everything from right-sizing and minimizing packaging to using alternate raw materials," Butcher says. Since then, he adds, vendors have started coming to the company to share their knowledge and discuss manufacturing challenges.

Although SPC doesn't take a stand on specific materials, it's clear that some coalition members are looking to move away from lightning rod materials such as PVC.

For Target, an early packaging redesign effort was in the dinnerware area. As Butcher recalls, the company was packaging plates in a clear PVC box with corrugated cardboard inserts and expanded polystyrene foam. "The engineers worked with one of our key packaging suppliers to develop a fully corrugated window box," he says. This allowed the company to maintain an "open stock" appearance on the shelf while eliminating the need for both PVC and the polystyrene foam.

Nike, the Oregon-based athletic wear company, is another SPC member that has been trying to drop PVC from its materials repertoire. It launched a PVC-removal effort in the late 1990s and says it has eliminated the plastic, except for a few small uses such as apparel inks.

John Frazier is Nike's director for environment, safety, and health and for what the company calls "considered chemistry." To Frazier, an M.S. chemist, considered chemistry means that "we try to consider everything. We don't just look at the quickest and cheapest way to make something. We try to find the best way from a direction that does not negatively impact the consumer, the worker, or the environment."

GETTING TRACTION
Nike says its Air Jordan XX3 sneaker minimizes the use of harmful chemicals and maximizes the use of environmentally friendly materials. The company calls it the world's first premium-performance, sustainable basketball shoe.
Credit: Nike
8633cov2_technologycxd_opt
 
GETTING TRACTION
Nike says its Air Jordan XX3 sneaker minimizes the use of harmful chemicals and maximizes the use of environmentally friendly materials. The company calls it the world's first premium-performance, sustainable basketball shoe.
Credit: Nike

NIKE'S SUSTAINABILITY program seeks to use chemistry and design innovation to eliminate toxins and waste. It targets areas such as sustainable materials, waste, water, and climate change???and chemistry plays a role throughout. "Waste has more potential uses if the toxic footprint isn't too prohibitive," Frazier explains. "Better selection of dyes and finishes can improve water quality."

According to Frazier, Nike is increasingly approached by chemical and material suppliers offering what they consider more sustainable options. "Across many industries, the environment is being taken more seriously," he says. "There is a greater realization that 'greener' can be a business opportunity."

He points to a number of examples where Nike and chemical industry partners teamed up to make a process or material more environmentally friendly. Nike's chemical engineering group worked with suppliers to reduce volatile organic compounds in footwear 96% by moving to water-based adhesives. "This was not as easy as it sounds," he says. "It required more precise tooling, different tack times, and a change to process flow and times."

And the company cooperated with suppliers to develop a "greener" shoe rubber by targeting what, according to Frazier, were five toxic chemicals in a common rubber formulation. By using vegetable oils and more benign accelerators, he says, Nike created a rubber that contains 96% fewer toxics by weight and allows the company to cut out at least 3,000 metric tons of toxic materials each year.

Hawkins, the Dow sustainability expert, is all for this kind of cooperative effort. What gets him a little frustrated is activists who want to ban specific products, as if certain chemicals are inherently evil. "Critics should think about making certain uses of a chemical safer rather than trying to take out the chemical altogether," Hawkins says. "More than 95% of industrial products have chemicals in them. If you want change you've got to have chemical companies that produce the alternatives."

Yet Hawkins is also a realist. "When the market speaks, the market speaks," he acknowledges. Dow is a leading producer of nonylphenol ethoxylates, but in answer to customer concerns about their biodegradability, the company has developed Ecosurf, a line of oilseed-based surfactants that it says can replace nonylphenol ethoxylates in many applications.

For Hawkins, Ecosurf is also an example of Dow's push to increase its use of more sustainable raw materials. In Brazil, the company is planning what Hawkins says will be the largest renewable plastics plant in the world. Being built in cooperation with the Brazilian firm Crystalsev, the facility will convert sugarcane-derived ethanol into ethylene and then into polyethylene. "This will be the showcase renewable plastics plant," Hawkins says.

In Houston, the company will be using glycerin, a by-product of manufacturing biodiesel, as a raw material to produce propylene glycol, a common chemical used as a nontoxic antifreeze and in numerous other applications. And it's converting soybean oil into polyols, which are used to make flexible polyurethane foams for pillows, seat cushions, and the like.

But sustainability isn't just about renewable raw materials, Hawkins points out. Dow has promised to reduce its energy intensity—the energy used per pound of product made—by 25% between 2005 and 2015. And it's coming out with new technology such as a process, jointly developed with BASF, that produces the polyurethane raw material propylene oxide with 35% less energy than the traditional route.

At BASF's sustainability center in Ludwigshafen, Germany, center head Lothar Meinzer tries to make the case that the environmental and safety improvements the chemical industry has made since the 1970s have earned it the right to advance to a new stage of development.

"I'm really convinced we have done our homework on environmental, health, and safety issues," Meinzer says. BASF continues to improve the safety of its plants and products and is even gathering data and conducting tests to have its own REACH-like system for chemicals management in place by 2015, three years ahead of the EU's deadline. "That is all still on the agenda," Meinzer says, "but basically I think these battles are the battles of the past."

IN HIS VIEW, the chemical industry's focus today should be on sustainability goals such as a smaller carbon footprint and on using its products and expertise to make other industries more sustainable. "Chemicals is the key industry that helps us meet the challenges of climate change and world food supply," Meinzer asserts.

Similar to other big chemical companies—and it is the world's biggest—BASF has ambitious goals for reducing energy use and carbon dioxide by 2020. For example, it intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per ton of product sold by 25% compared with 2002. A previous goal to cut such emissions by 10% by 2012 was reached in 2007 with projects such as one that used a BASF catalyst to convert nitrous oxide emissions from nitric acid production in Antwerp, Belgium, into harmless nitrogen and oxygen.

Meinzer is more excited about what BASF is doing to make the rest of the world more sustainable. For example, the company is selling similar catalysts to other producers of nitric acid so they can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, which, pound for pound, has a global warming potential 300 times that of carbon dioxide.

In February, BASF announced the completion of a study concluding that, far from filling the world with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the company's products are actually helping to reduce them. The results of what it called the world's first complete corporate carbon analysis were that BASF's products save three times more greenhouse gas emissions than are created during their manufacture and disposal.

The company calculated that in 2006 close to 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents were emitted during the production of the raw materials it consumes, during its own production activities, and in the eventual disposal of its products, conservatively assumed to be via incineration.

However, BASF looked at 90 key products and determined that customers saved more than 250 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents by using them. Examples include BASF-made insulation materials that lower the energy consumed in home heating, lightweight plastics that reduce auto fuel consumption, and a nitrification inhibitor that slows the release of nitrous oxide through the decomposition of fertilizers.

Like Dow's Hawkins, Meinzer sees sustainability and profitability going hand in hand. Using PVC as an example, he points to research BASF began more than a decade ago to come up with alternatives to phthalate plasticizers, particularly for sensitive plastic products such as baby toys and medical devices.

In 2002, the company launched Hexamoll DINCH. Known chemically as 1,2- cyclohexyldicarboxylic acid diisononyl ester, the new plasticizer has gone through about $8 million worth of toxicological screening and is now the most tested plasticizer on the market, BASF says. Companies such as the German medical feeding bag manufacturer Pfrimmer Nutricia have switched over to it, and last year, BASF quadrupled the size of the plant in Ludwigshafen where it makes the new product.

Executives at leading U.S. companies think the same way. In addition to targets for greenhouse gas emissions, water conservation, and the like, DuPont has explicit goals for sales from products that benefit the environment. By 2015, it expects to expand annual revenues by at least $2 billion from products that create energy efficiency or significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And by then it expects to nearly double its revenues from nondepletable resources to at least $8 billion.

PHTHALATE-FREE
The medical devices company Pfrimmer-Nutricia has dropped phthalates from its health care products in favor of a new plasticizer developed by BASF.
Credit: Pfrimmer-Nutricia
8633cov2_ivcxd_opt
 
PHTHALATE-FREE
The medical devices company Pfrimmer-Nutricia has dropped phthalates from its health care products in favor of a new plasticizer developed by BASF.
Credit: Pfrimmer-Nutricia

ALREADY, DUPONT has interesting examples of chemicals made from renewable raw materials, one is the polymer starting material propanediol, made from corn sugar by a joint venture between DuPont and the sugar refiner Tate & Lyle. In keeping with its push for sales from nondepletable resources, DuPont makes metallization pastes, polyvinyl fluoride, and several other products used in photovoltaic solar panels. The company says it continues to invest in new technology to help improve solar module efficiency.

And the company is backing up its new-product goals with research. By 2015, it plans to double its investment in R&D programs with direct environmental benefits. BASF, for its part, already estimates that more than a third of its 2007 R&D budget of almost $2 billion was dedicated to projects that save resources or contribute to climate protection.

Dawn Rittenhouse, DuPont's director of sustainable development, says this new commercial focus represents an evolution of the company's thinking about the environment and sustainability. Rittenhouse, a 28-year veteran of DuPont, dates the origins of sustainability at the firm to a 1989 speech by Ed Woolard—his first as DuPont's CEO—in which he talked about corporate environmentalism.

"At the time, we were focused on our own footprint—and we had a huge footprint," Rittenhouse recalls. "We spent most of the 1990s focused on this. But after you've done that for a while, you learn things. Business opportunities evolve. We changed our focus from doing less bad to doing more good."

The goal of sustainability at DuPont is profits, Rittenhouse acknowledges, although the company may not reap them in the short term. It didn't in its earlier efforts to reduce consumption of fuel and other resources that contributed to its environmental footprint—that is, not until energy prices started to rise. "We did a lot of work in the 1990s on energy efficiency. It may have cost us money back then, but it's paying off big-time now," she points out.

Rittenhouse argues that even environmental activists and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are willing to admit nowadays that it's okay for companies to profit from environmentalism. "One thing that the NGOs have recognized is that companies that are financially successful will be able to do this kind of work," she says. "Those that aren't can't."

Groups like GreenBlue and The Natural Step are motivated to cooperate with industry in part because they are paid by industry. But even the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the largest and most respected environmental organizations, is beginning to work together with the chemical industry.

GAS RELIEF
DuPont executive Thomas R. Earnest Jr. displays a photovoltaic panel made with DuPont materials. DuPont wants to sharply increase its sales of products that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Credit: DuPont
8633cov2_solar3cxd_opt
 
GAS RELIEF
DuPont executive Thomas R. Earnest Jr. displays a photovoltaic panel made with DuPont materials. DuPont wants to sharply increase its sales of products that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Credit: DuPont

In 1998, EDF took a pioneering step toward cooperation when it helped launch the High Production Volume Challenge Program. It worked with EPA and the American Chemistry Council to gather basic hazard data on the 2,200 largest-volume chemicals produced in the U.S. Then in 2005, it formed an alliance with DuPont to develop a systematic process for evaluating the environmental, health, and safety risks of nanomaterials.

Richard Denison, a senior scientist at EDF, offers qualified praise for the industry on the chemical safety issues that are his expertise. Denison, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University, has worked for EDF for more than 20 years. Among his accomplishments are managing the group's participation in the High Production Volume Challenge Program.

In a report last year on that program, Denison was critical, giving EPA an overall "final grade" of C– and the chemical industry a D. Yet Denison is no knee-jerk industry basher. He gives better grades to individual companies that are, as he says, "taking steps to improve their practices and that recognize that a change in policies that influence behavior are needed."

One of these companies is DuPont, with which EDF has been working on nanomaterials. Denison is also encouraged by Dow's pledge to publicly disclose safety assessments for all of its products by 2015. It's true that so far Dow has concluded that all of its products are perfectly safe, "but at least there's an effort to acknowledge that the landscape is changing and they need to be responsive to demands for more information."

Denison is all about information—and the lack of it for many basic chemicals. Pointing to the recent flare-up over trace amounts of the plastics raw material bisphenol A in baby bottles, he says some 7 billion lbs of the chemical are made around the world every year, yet the industry is just getting around to understanding all its hazards. "The jury may be out on the risk of bisphenol A," he says, "but the fact that we allowed a chemical into such widespread use while knowing so little about it—that is the telling issue."

While Denison is willing to cut the chemical industry a little slack, Rick Hind is not. Hind is toxics campaign legislative director at Greenpeace USA, and he sees most industry sustainability efforts as little more than lip service. "Most of the good stuff is public relations," he says of efforts at large chemical companies. "That part of their business is too small to be taken seriously."

IN HIND'S VIEW, chemical makers are lagging behind the investment community, which already understands that companies will need to adopt greener processes if they are to remain viable for the long term. "Manufacturers should get the message that there's a great deal of money to be made in green chemistry," Hind says. "But a lot of inertia exists in companies. It's ironic that companies that brag about their innovations and patents suddenly go into can't-do mode."

Chemistry can be practiced sustainably, Hind believes, but doing so will require more Spartan restrictions than most chemical makers are willing to adopt. For Greenpeace, a sustainable company is one whose product slate is free of industry staples such as brominated flame retardants, PVC, and, perhaps most alarmingly for the chemical industry, chlorine.

Hind isn't swayed by arguments for the water-purifying benefits of chlorine—alternatives exist, he says—or by the chemical industry contention that it is enabling the production of greenhouse gas conserving devices such as wind turbines and solar panels. "Don't use them as a place to dump chemicals you can't use in toys," he warns. Burned by previous unfruitful engagements, Hind is also dismissive of most efforts to cooperate with the industry.

Yet some industry executives seem willing to meet halfway with, if not Hind, at least people like Denison. Rohm and Haas's Barton is one of those executives.

Asked where the industry needs to improve on the road to sustainability and Barton answers immediately: Leadership. "Your average consumer believes the chemical industry is the root of the problem, and in some ways they have a lot of good evidence that that's the case," he says. "We need to take leadership and say the only way to maintain the quality of life we lead today and be sustainable is if the chemical industry provides solutions.

"It's the biggest opportunity since the industrial revolution. What better challenge for the chemical industry to step up to and lead, instead of fight every regulation or every attempt by society to try to right the wrongs that some chemicals, or poor uses of chemicals, have led to?" Using bisphenol A and baby bottles as an example, Barton asks how chemical companies can expect the public to trust them as sustainability leaders if all it sees them doing is fighting seemingly worthwhile regulations.

More so than some chemical executives, Barton is willing to acknowledge the industry's mistakes, both past and present. But that doesn't make him any less enthusiastic about the industry's ability to make up for those mistakes and then go further—to research and develop new products that help Earth's people live comfortable, fulfilling lives that don't compromise the success of future generations.

"Innovation is going to be absolutely critical to real progress in sustainability," Barton says. "It's been innovation that, in some ways, has led to the buildup of many materials in society. It's going to be innovation from companies like Rohm and Haas that will change those materials in a way that makes the world more sustainable."

 

Cover Story

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society