Why green chemistry is the right formula for the circular economy

Recently I had the opportunity to attend Circularity 22 in Atlanta. Circularity is the annual gathering organized by the team at GreenBiz Group to bring together experts, practitioners and other interested parties on the growing global effort to transition to a circular economy. Much credit goes to Jon Smieja, GreenBiz’s new vice president for Circularity, and his colleagues in making sure the topic of safer and sustainable chemistry is central to the circular economy discussion.

For those new to the topic, sustainable chemistry is increasingly used interchangeably with green chemistry, especially in Europe, and includes the drive toward safer chemistry. See the seminal description in “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice” by Anastas and Warner (1998).

Non-stick, done better

What is the connection between a circular economy and sustainable chemistry? Cycling materials requires that we ensure those materials make use of safe and sustainable chemicals.

Cycling materials requires that we ensure those materials make use of safe and sustainable chemicals.

Here’s an example: Most likely you’ve read the news about PFAS and other aptly tagged #foreverchemicals. PFAS is an acronym for a class of chemicals that takes centuries to degrade; it therefore lingers in our bodies and the environment and shows high concern for chronic illnesses such as cancer, liver damage and infertility.

How and why did PFAS get here? For decades, it’s been used in countless consumer products from raincoats to makeup, so our stuff can be more durable, slippery, waterproof, etc. Given that PFAS has been found to be so persistent and harmful, cycling those chemicals would be a bad idea.

In a dramatic turn, after years of NGO and consumer pressure, PFAS is the latest class of chemicals to see rapid regulation worldwide and an outright ban in many countries and applications. There is even a feature film about it. But PFAS is not the only chemical of concern under scrutiny.

At Circularity 22, several presenters described the ongoing work to find safer alternatives for other chemicals of concern. As apparel and other materials are cycled, humans and the environment experience less harmful impact compared to those materials that previously included inputs such as PFAS chemistry.

Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo Beauty, put these efforts into the context of cosmetics and personal care products during a breakout session on the relevance of green chemistry in circular supply chains. Cosmetic formulations are known to include of PFAS chemistry as well. Credo Beauty supports hundreds of small, independent brands to eliminate chemistries of concern, PFAS included, to maximize safer chemistry in the products they offer.

The subset of chemicals used in products and listed for regulation or restriction is only part what needs to be managed as we transition to a circular economy. Many other chemicals of high concern not yet regulated or restricted have been tracked for years by NGOs and consumer groups for their potential to harm humans and/or the environment. Still other chemicals used in consumer products show evidence of high concern for human or environmental health impact but are not yet well-enough tracked to draw scrutiny and regulatory restriction such as PFAS, BPA, phthalates, BFRs and thousands of others.

Tracked developments in the Enhesa Regulatory Forecaster show that through May 2022, chemicals topics sit atop the list of environment, health, and safety (EHS) regulatory issues worldwide. With over 1,010 developments in chemical management this year alone — 283 of them proposals for change in the future — it’s a complex and dynamic landscape to navigate.

Increasingly though, many preferred chemicals and materials in use and under development embody principles of safer and sustainable chemistry and show great promise for a circular economy. At Circularity 22, green chemistry pioneer John Warner described how he and his colleagues at the innovative chemical supplier Zymergen make use of biological processes to produce new molecules based on the principles of green chemistry — the very same concept Warner helped to establish almost 25 years ago.

In-person inspiration

In addition to this being my first in-person conference in over two years, this was my first time at Circularity. In many ways, this year’s event was a homecoming for me. My professional career started in the mid-1990s as a sustainability consultant helping brands think about cycling of materials for their products. For the past 13 years I have been working with my colleagues at Scivera where we have been singularly focused on delivering safer chemistry and materials insight to global consumer products brands and their suppliers.

In October, Scivera was acquired by Enhesa, a Brussels-based global leader in operations, EHS, product chemicals management software and trend reporting. As Scivera’s founder, I took on a new role at our new parent, growing the stakeholder engagement practice company wide. This new work at Enhesa has enabled me to reconnect on the global sustainability agenda and its connections to sustainable chemistry. Circularity 22 was the ideal venue for that.

One of several sessions at this year’s Circularity conference that further inspired on the potential for progress was a series of brief new product pitches by entrepreneurs. Technologies to track materials recovery in emerging economies, bioplastics to embody green chemistry principles and recycling technologies to more efficiently recover material value were among the products presented to attendees.

Keeping at it

The renewed momentum around the cycling of materials toward a circular economy is hugely hopeful and creates tremendous opportunity. This progress also creates urgency to better understand the chemicals we use in our materials. Finding safer chemistry for the materials and products in a circular economy, used over and over, is a critical step to not repeat mistakes of the recent past.

I am already looking forward to Circularity 23 in Seattle, and all of the progress and examples of success between now and then.

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