(The Guardian - Bruce Watson) This year, green chemistry celebrates its 25th birthday. The science of finding more sustainable and less toxic chemicals was once a revolutionary idea, but has since become a part of the consumer product landscape. From removing carcinogens from furniture to banning ineffective antibacterial chemicals, the struggle to create a healthier and more sustainable chemical landscape continues to attract widespread attention.
Customers – and companies – are taking note. A recent survey estimates that the global market for green chemicals is on track to grow from $11bn in 2015 to $100bn in 2020. In North America, the numbers are expected to go from $3bn to $20bn in the same period.
Petroleum made in a lab?
Martin Mulvihill, co-founder and former director of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and co-founder of Safer Made, a venture capital fund that invests in the latest green chemistry technologies.
"One of the most influential trends has been the move to bio-based feedstocks for chemistry. Historically, chemistry has relied on petroleum based products, which means that we have to extract petroleum from the ground, transport it and process it. As therecent problems with fracking show, that's expensive and environmentally damaging.
"When we're done with these products, they don't biodegrade; instead, they pile up in landfills and in the ocean. It's interesting that people think that our leftover plastic and other products are just going to disappear: fossils fuels are the remains of organic matter that have managed to stay around for millions of years. What makes us think that [plastics] are going to go away just because we're done with them?
"Scientists have begun using microorganisms to biosynthesize materials, which means that, rather than using chemicals that come from oil, we're growing our chemicals in the lab. In the future, it's entirely possible that the basic building blocks of our chemistry will come from biomass, including food and crop waste. In other words, this biotechnology revolution will help us use our waste to make new materials.
"This is one of the most exciting new areas of chemistry, and it provides us with an opportunity to design safer and more sustainable chemicals. Companies like Amyris, BioAmber and Elevance are already commercializing this process, and the next generation of chemists are already beginning to reach for biosynthesized materials, rather than petroleum based ones. It's a vast change, and it's transforming the way we develop and manufacture products."
A BPA-free future
David Levine is the co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, a coalition of business organizations dedicated to building a more sustainable, less toxic economy.
"The biggest advancement in green chemistry has been a shift in consciousness and practice. The public has become aware of the need for and value of green chemistry and companies have become aware of the economic opportunities that it offers – as well as the danger of not taking advantage of them, which the 2015 report by the American Sustainable Business Council, GC3 and Trucost demonstrate.
"Nalgene's bottle recall in 2008 is a perfect example. The presence of BPA in plastic bottles became a major media story and captured the public's interest. The public demanded action on numerous products, from baby bottles to the water bottles that college students were toting around. Within a year, many companies were changing their production to cut BPA out of their products. And those that didn't watched their reputations – and their market share – evaporate.
"Today, you walk into every store and see 'BPA free' products on the shelves. There are new plants, new advertising, new products. Consumers are demanding products without hazardous chemicals, companies are realizing that they can be responsible, innovate and improve their profits, and regulators and legislators are realizing that they can provide more comprehensive regulations. Green chemistry is providing an opportunity for a stronger economy and a healthier society."
Breathing new life into greenhouse gases
Libby Bernick is senior vice president, North America for Trucost, a research firm that measures the way that companies use natural resources.
"One of the biggest advancements in green chemistry is the growth in manufacturers that are starting to use pollution as a raw material for making their products.
"This is incredibly significant: according to the World Economic Forum, the biggest risk currently facing our society is its failure to mitigate or adapt to climate change. We're continuing to produce greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, which are leading to further climate change that will, in turn, have massive financial implications for the economy.
"But there's another approach that we can take. Instead of looking at methane and carbon dioxide as an inevitable byproduct of manufacturing, companies like Novomerand Newlight are seeing it as an opportunity. They're using it to make new products: Newlight makes a price-competitive plastic, and Novomer makes chemicals that can be used to produce anything from diapers to paints. In so doing, both companies are creating new markets and new economic opportunities."