Thursday, June 23, 2011

Green Chemistry and the Transformation of an Industry

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate. 

Implementing an environmental sustainability strategy can have a transformative power on traditionally low-tech industries. Georgia’s carpet industry is a prime example of how a proactive industry-led sustainability strategy can not only obviate government regulations but meet growing consumer demand for environmentally friendly carpet. As reward for their efforts, the carpet industry’s push towards sustainability has given them greater insight into their supply chains as well as a critical look at how to innovate their production processes. These innovations have increased resource efficiency and lowered the environmental burden of their carpet mills. A recent study by the BlueGreen Alliance The Economic Benefits of a Green Chemical Industry in the United States: Renewing Manufacturing Jobs While Protecting Health and the Environment seeks to achieve similar success in the chemical industry.

The BlueGreen Alliance targeted the chemical industry for three underlying reasons: 1) ninety-six percent of U.S. manufactured goods contain a chemical product making chemicals a pervasive part of the economy, 2) the industry has suffered significant job loss with 300,000 jobs lost since 1992, and 3) the chemical industry has the highest pollution abatement costs of any manufacturing industry. The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition between labor unions and environmental organizations, hopes that pushing for more stringent environmental regulations will encourage the relatively low-tech chemical industry (the chemistry industry’s R&D spending is only 1.5 percent of the sales while the computer and electronics sector’s R&D spending equals 15.5 percent of sales) to pursue innovations in green chemistry. Green chemistry is defined by the Green Chemistry Institute as the design, development, and implementation of chemical products and processes to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of substances hazardous to human health and the environment. Through this redesign of chemical products, the BlueGreen Alliance projects that a shift towards green chemistry will increase R&D spending in the chemical industry, promote job growth from new manufacturing processes and potentially reduce the exorbitant pollution abatement costs now faced by the chemical industry. The Alliance estimates that a shift towards food-based plastics alone could create 104,000 jobs from a $40 billion dollar investment. However, not all of these jobs will be created in the chemical industry. Of the 104,000 jobs, only 48,000 will be directly employed in the chemical industry, the remaining 56,000 jobs will be created in agricultural industries since it will take more labor to grow and process agricultural products so that they are ready for the manufacturing process. 

While the Alliance stresses that green chemistry can be promoted through a tougher reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, state and local governments needn’t wait around for the creation of new federal legislation. In a 2008 report, the California Green Chemistry Initiative identified six strategies to support the development of Green Chemistry in their state, a few of their strategies include: 1) expand pollution prevention and product stewardship programs, 2) develop green chemistry workforce education and training, and 3) create an online product ingredient network. With these few steps, the state of California hopes to spawn innovation in an industry stuck producing high volume, capital intensive commodity chemicals that haven’t changed much in decades. As California’s initiative shows, an informed environmental sustainability strategy pushes industries past simply complying with local, state and federal law. An informed sustainability strategy promotes a culture of continual improvement: a culture that encourages firms to innovate beyond the required government regulations. To read the BlueGreen Alliance’s or the California Green Chemistry Initiative reports click the following links: 

Blue Green Alliance

California Green Chemistry Initiative