Because of the health risks associated with exposure to chemicals in everyday products, as well as the adverse impacts of these chemicals on ecosystems, a growing number of chemists have begun creating chemicals and chemical processes that have minimal environmental impact.
Dubbed “green chemistry,” this relatively new branch of science demonstrates how fundamental scientific methodologies can protect human health and the environment in an economically beneficial manner.
Presently, green chemistry research focuses on polymers, solvents, catalysis, biobased products, renewable products, analytical method development, synthetic methodology development, and the design of safer chemicals (Anastas and Kirchhoff 2002).
Green chemistry represents a major paradigm shift in product manufacturing, as it centers on environmental protection at the product design stage. The goal is to make chemicals and products “benign by design,” a term coined by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA), rather than merely managing products’ toxic waste after use and disposal (Cal/EPA 2008).
According to Mark Rossi, research director of the NGO Clean Production Action (CPA), ”the building and construction, cleaning product, health care, pharmaceutical, electronic, and retail industries have made the most progress (thus far) toward implementing green chemistry, although that success is ‘uneven’” (Betts 2009).
Still, green chemistry is gaining traction. After extensive study, the Cal/EPA in 2008 issued its final Green Chemistry Initiative report, which included six policy recommendations:
1. Expand pollution prevention and product stewardship programs to more business sectors to refocus resources on prevention rather than clean up.
2. Develop green chemistry workforce education and training, research and development, and technology transfer through new and existing educational programs and partnerships.
3. Create an online product ingredient network to disclose chemical ingredients for products sold in California while protecting trade secrets.
4. Create an online toxics clearinghouse, which is an online database of chemicals and their toxicity, to help prioritize chemicals of concern and needs for data.
5. Accelerate the search for safer products by creating a systematic, science-based process to evaluate chemicals of concern and alternatives. This will help ensure product safety and reduce or eliminate the need for one-off chemical bans.
6. Move toward a “cradle-to-cradle” economy and leverage market forces to produce products that are “benign-by-design” by establishing a California Green Products Registry. The Registry will develop green metrics and tools for a range of consumer products and encourage businesses to use them (Cal/EPA 2008).
7. California AB 1879 (Chapter 559, Statutes of 2008) requires the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to adopt regulations by January 1, 2011 to identify and prioritize chemicals of concern, evaluate alternatives, and specify regulatory responses where chemicals of concern are found in products.
8. California SB 509 (Chapter 560, Statutes of 2008) requires an online, public Toxics Information Clearinghouse to be created that includes science-based information on the toxicity and hazard traits of chemicals used in daily life (Cal/EPA 2008).