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California Sticks Toe in Green Chemistry Pond

• July 27, 2009 • 1:45 PM

While lots of places and people are interested in sustainable chemistry, California has become a pioneer in requiring it.

In about a decade, California’s “green chemistry” laws are expected to start affecting most products made in or brought into the Golden State, including fuel, building materials and retail items. Proponents predict that the regulations not only won’t drag down the state’s currently ailing economy further but will act as a tonic — creating more jobs than the Internet, as one regulator phrased it.

Green chemistry, also known as “sustainable chemistry,” refers to processes that cut harmful environmental substances during manufacturing, usually by reducing waste, using nontoxic components and improving efficiency. Although not a new concept, it’s not well known outside the chemical industry.

No other states are as far along on the concept as California — see its nascent green chemistry regulations wiki here — but federal officials say the idea has been a priority in Washington, D.C., since the Clinton administration.

“Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances,” explained Rich Engler, a chemist in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He runs a 14-year-old awards program that provides high-level recognition for scientists and companies who develop greener chemicals and other eco-friendly products.

An example drawn from the five EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award winners honored in June is professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. He won for developing “atom transfer radical polymerization,” or ATRP, which he describes as a process for finding a way to produce polymers — chains of similar molecules used in coatings, adhesives and medical products — in a greener fashion.

Quite often, hazardous chemicals are used to manufacture those products, a particular concern since, Matyjaszewski said, approximately 400 billion pounds of synthetic polymers are produced each year. He and his team developed an alternative process that uses environmentally friendly chemicals, such as ascorbic acid — also known as vitamin C — as a reducing agent, which requires less catalyst and less chance of environmental contamination.

“Award winners’ work has led to the elimination of more than 1.3 billion pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents, nearly 43 billion gallons of water and about 450 million pounds of carbon dioxide,” Engler said.

He said while several states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania are working on green chemistry concepts, “to my knowledge, no other states are taking regulatory steps now like California.” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year signed a bill to develop green chemistry regulations.

Environmental attorney Maureen Gorsen, who worked as a legal counsel for Schwarzengger and former Gov. Pete Wilson and headed the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control before taking a job with the Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird, said California is developing requirements that will keep most toxic and non-biodegradable products out of the state.

This is a major undertaking; the vast majority of the products sold in California are made elsewhere, including those from China. Some Chinese products, including direct-to-the-consumer items like toys, jewelry and tote bags, have been found to be coated with high levels of lead and arsenic on them.

The idea is to have products designed to be “green at the molecular level” so they don’t damage the environment as they are used or when they are discarded, she said.

“Bureaucrats in Sacramento are busy, busy, busy working on the rules that will govern how business will be conducted in California for the next 20 or 30 years.”

The old method of “command and control” — with rules and fines for breaking them — to protect the environment is on its way out, Gorsen said. Instead, state officials are seeking ways to get manufacturers to sell eco-friendly products that are designed that way before they are sold — the “cradle to cradle” or “lifecycle assessment” approach.

But the new approach is no slam dunk.

“No one knows yet what will be required or when,” as far as the green chemistry laws are concerned, Gorsen said. “I’m concerned people in Sacramento aren’t smart enough and will fall back on command and control.”

She stressed the urgency of the situation by noting California’s $7 billion-a-year chemical industry is expected to double production every 25 years.

Maziar Movassaghi, acting director of California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control, said despite the state’s $26 billion deficit, recessionary conditions and staggering joblessness, “green chemistry is the wave of the future and it won’t go away.”

By next year, California will begin laying out the green chemistry rules that he said will start to change the environmental movement more than anything in the past three decades.

“Thirty years ago, PCB was banned, but we’re still finding it in water,” Movassaghi said, referring to the chemical polychlorinated biphenyl, which impairs children’s intelligence. He said California wants to avoid introducing any more chemicals into the environment before they are found to be harmful.

Movassaghi said some 140,000 chemicals are used worldwide, and while it may not be possible to deal with all of them, the plan is to control those that are most heavily used while providing a “balance between regulations and market forces.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, in a March letter to Department of Toxic Substances Control, called for prioritizing regulators’ reach and involving industry (such as the Green Chemistry Alliance): “In implementing the prioritization, the state should create an open and iterative process for involving the expertise and knowledge of stakeholders to contribute to the information used to make decisions. The process should also work to funnel or narrow the universe of chemicals from a large initial set to a final small set to concentrate on ‘the important few’ versus the trivial many.”

Federal officials, Engler said, share the idea that green chemistry need not bust the economy and may help it. “If it’s not economically viable, it won’t get implemented,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state’s current economic problems should survive California’s budget problems, Gorsen said. California’s green chemistry and crackdown on carbon fuel emissions will continue to be developed because most funding for them already is in place and is not affected by the recession. She estimated some 500 people in Sacramento are working on global warming and other environmental concerns, while green venture capital investment in California is reaching about $12 billion a year.

Movassaghi admitted it may take years for everyone to get on board with green chemistry principles, but he remains hopeful. “Green chemistry is going to create more jobs in California than the Internet.”

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Ray Estrada
Ray Estrada is a 35-year veteran of newspapers, wire services and radio news. He has worked in California, Nevada, Central America and Cuba. This year, he won an award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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