Green Chemistry: From Blue Jeans to 3-D Printing

Executive Director, UC Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry

By Edmund L. Andrews

 
When people talk about “green” business, they often think about renewable energy and products that have a smaller carbon footprint.

But there is also a burgeoning business interest in “green chemistry,” safer and more environmentally sustainable alternatives to chemicals that are used in everything from clothing and toys to food and electronics.

Martin Mulvihill, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Green Chemistry, is at the forefront of that effort – often in partnership with the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at the Berkeley-Haas Center for Responsible Business.

Among his recent collaborations:

*A project for Levi Strauss & Co. to find safer and more sustainable chemicals to make wrinkle-free and water-repellant clothing. 

*A project for Autodesk to identify bio-inspired materials for use in 3-D printing.

*A project to find an alternative to isocyanate, a toxic chemical in spray-foam insulation material that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control would like to replace.

Having launched the Center for Green Chemistry in 2010 as a collaboration between College of Chemistry, School of Public Health, Environmental Science, Toxicology, and Engineering, Mulvilhill is now expanding his partnership with the Center for Responsible Business in order to take on longer-term industry-wide challenges.

“We take challenges from industry partners, such as Levi Strauss, Method, and Autodesk,” he says. “These are industry-wide challenges for the middle-term, not just for the next quarter.  We help students understand the technical function of a chemical and then look for alternatives using the tools of green chemistry, biomimicry, and sustainablity.”

It’s one thing to find a “bio-mimetic” process that can substitute for an existing chemical, but another thing entirely to find one that is as cost-competitive and performs as well as the original.  And even when alternatives are found, they may come with their own toxicity problems.

“Just because something is new or even bio-based doesn’t mean it is inherently better,” Mulvihill cautions, “It is important to take a lifecycle approach to identify the potential tradeoffs or the toxicity associated with a replacement chemical.

That appears to be the case with BPS, an alternative to the plasticizing compound BPA that has been banned in many areas because of its health risks. Unfortunately, BPS poses its own health risks as an endocrine disrupter.

Part of the center’s strategy, Mulvihill says, is to think about a problem in an entirely new way.  Instead of replacing a troublesome chemical, for example, the solution may involve re-designing a process to get by without the chemical.

It may also involve a fresh look at the conventional wisdom of how a product is used.  Levi Strauss, for example, asked the Center for Responsible Business and the Center for Green Chemistry to analyze the biological impact of washing jeans less frequently.

Mulvihill argues that many companies are keenly aware of the business case for research on green chemistry, in part because of increasing pressure from consumers and the public at large.

“They need chemicals and materials that are safer for the environment, meet consumer demands for price performance and increasingly for health expectations as well,” he says.  “What we can provide are the new technologies that meet all three of those needs.  If you’re feeling pressure and want to be pro-active rather than reactive, and get a leg up on your competitors, we can help take you to the future.”

“We know that there are unmet needs in many sectors of the economy for safer chemicals,” he continues.  “Some of the biggest challenges include creating safer and more sustainable methods for textile dyeing and finishing; new adhesives and coatings in the building industry; replacements for rare-earth and heavy metals in electronics; and better polymers, plasticizers, and additives for the plastics industry.”

In addition to the economic incentives for developing safer and more effective technologies, Mulvihill says that social and political drivers can play equally important roles in advancing the development and adoption of safer chemicals.

Consumer advocacy organizations can exert significant influence by  pressuring companies to adopt safer and more sustainable materials. We have already seen this in campaigns that led to the  increasingly numerous bans of   BPA  in plastic bottles and childrens’ toys, as well as in in Greenpeace’s successful effort in the European Union to ban the import of textiles produced with hazardous chemicals known as NPE’s.

There is also an opportunity for business investment within large companies to support entrepreneurs who are focused on developing safer chemistry. Increasing consumer awareness and international regulation will drive manufacturers and brands toward safer and more sustainable chemistry.

For more information on the Center for Green Chemistry’s outreach to business, contact Tom McKeag, the Center’s new program director.

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