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Life Cycle Analysis for Toxic and Green Chemistry

Life cycle analysis of green materials is a toxic swamp -- no answers, few decisionmaking tools, no standards...yet. But a $16 trillion market projection!

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Relative Sustainability of Production and Distribution Processes

Rod Miller, (Senior Environmental Specialist with the City of Folsom, CA - Hazardous Materials Division) recently contributed on an email discussion list, a very helpful summary of the challenges facing green business strategies: ...We often see this kind of "what is best ... question." I know you are looking for an easy answer. There are no easy answers to this kind of question, because the significance of environmental impacts is in the eyes of the beholder and because the impact information is company specific. There is no good complete world of information about the products and manufacturers that you are considering. Google is the closest thing we have. The answer is what you have to provide for yourself.

When you answer the question tell us how you did it and what was important to you and we will learn too.

Practical "Life Cycle Analysis" (LCA)

I have participated in many discussions about standards for using so called life cycle analysis and have argued the relevance or lack of relevance of them for many years.

The problem is that most non-objective analyzes and many objective analyzes don't evaluate all environmental media, energy, air, water, waste, product toxicity (localized environments) or habitat. Plus, how do we value impacts. Is an air impact that occurs in Hawaii the same as an impact that occurs in the LA basin? What were the impacts of the particular companies that are producing the products? How many tons of air pollutants equates to an acre of habitat loss. In most LCA I have seen they skip media like habitat.

So when determining what is best, it is somewhat of an individual decision based on the relative sustainability of an individual company's production and distribution processes. Rod Miller

Life Cycle Analysis is a coming management tool...but it's not quite here yet. A June 2008 webinar about California's Green Chemistry Initiative included a discussion about "which chemicals are green?". The answer is that there are NO STANDARDS. The European Union counts 100,000 chemicals in commercial use. The US and the US EPA only acknowledge about 87,000. Industry associations recognize only 13-14,000. Only a couple thousand have information available about toxicity study results. A couple thousand!... Out of 100,000. And the rate of new chemical products coming onto the market are doubling every 25 years. This is a growing problem -- not a shrinking one.

What also came out is that there is NO LIST of green chemicals to serve as a reference tool because there are no standard definitions about what is green chemistry.

Many chemists receive no education about toxicity.

Many (most?) product and process designers and engineers receive no education about toxicity.

The history of toxicity compliance has focused on facilities and processes ... not products. The attention is now turning so that product design will include end of life consideration that will include strategies such as take-back programs, recycling of materials and recylable design that makes it feasible to separate products for easy recycling.

California estimates the size of the global "green materials market" to be $16 trillion. Enough to get the attention of states and venture capitalists.

Solutions: Opportunities

There is a data gap! The mertrics are missing!

There is a safety gap!

There is a technology gap!

The California Green Chemistry Initiative, through its extensive outreach activities has found that the information is just not there. Chemicals no little toxicity (or green) information available for engineers, chemists and designers to use in their work.

Education at colleges most often don't include toxicity strategies for chemists, engineers, or designers. Professionals need toxicology courses.

Databases aren't NEAR complete, because the testing hasn't been done, and companies aren't getting the information they do have distributed.

People -- end consumers -- expect the government to protect them from toxicity. And government doesn't have enough information at this time to do that.

An interesting side note by the presenters was that RETAILERS are taking on the role of voluntary compliance gateways. Programs such as Wal-Mart's supply chain programs that require suppliers to report materials of their products are taking transparency to the shelves.

But we all know that transparency isn't enough. Standards based on testing is a vital part of a green solution. And there is nothing simple about testing chemicals that mix with any of those other 100,000 chemicals in the air, water, soil, and bodies of food sources and even our infants.

Green chemistry is the next frontier of the green transformation of industries that have been complacent for more than a hundred years about information, end of life impacts, and risk management.

Solutions...?

Do we even have the right questions to ask yet? We definitely need more information. More caution before we release new chemicals into the world's open systems. More thought for risk management...as well as opportunity that is more complex in this complex world.

TESTING will find toxicity and green information.

INFORMATION is key to the coming wave of solutions.

ANALYSIS will follow.

IT TOOLS that help with gathering information, analyzing it and distributing the information through the supply chain is basic to progress.

GREENER PRODUCT DESIGN will then result from good input, good intentions, and good management systems.

And GREENER DISTRIBUTION CHANNELS that include recycling, take-back and materials mining will become the eventual supply channel norm.

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| green chemistry | green chemistry iniative | life cycle analysis |

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