With a seemingly impossible job facing us as we strive to clean up the pollution industrialized nations have inflicted on the globe, it would be easy to fall into despair. It would be easy to think that nothing can get better, that we will continue to foul our nest until we kill ourselves and all our progeny. But there’s a glimmer of hope.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke recently with Maziar Movassaghi, acting director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, about California’s Green Chemistry Initiative. We asked Movassaghi to tell us about the cutting-edge work the Green Chemistry group in his department is doing and what the rest of us can learn from them. — Publisher
MOVASSAGHI: We’re very excited about our Green Chemistry Initiative. This is really a positive environmental agenda where we’re tackling a problem that seems very immense. We’ve had more than 30 years of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulations. Having regulated what ends up in the waste stream, we realized that we, the environmental regulators, can never keep up with the ever-increasing number of chemicals and products as they come into the marketplace.
On top of that, our science has advanced to the point where we know that some of these products in use have detrimental impacts. We used to only think about hazardous waste as being something that’s corrosive. But now we are realizing you’ve got to look at the epigenetic impact: You’ve got to look at impacts on our reproductive cycles, on our genes, because we’re living, breathing creatures, and we’re part of the environment.
We’re excited that the governor has given us authority and that he created this Green Chemistry Initiative. Now we don’t have to wait for products to end up in the waste stream. We can go all the way up the food chain into the labs of chemists and companies and engage them to create ever-benign products — benign by design.
BPGL: When you talk about “benign by design,” do you mean that you’re striving for non-toxic items in the waste stream?
MOVASSAGHI: It’s a really fundamental shift for environmental regulation. We don’t wait for stuff to reach the waste stream. And we don’t think of waste as garbage, but as nutrients. If you think of waste as nutrients, you require that at the end of a product’s use, you should be able to grind it up, throw it in the ground, and have it be a nutrient for an organic product. Or, if it doesn’t fit that model, it should be able to be reused in an industrial process.
Now, whether it goes to create energy for material productions or whether it goes back into the reuse of the product, those are two ways of approaching it. But it’s really a different way of looking at our waste, as “waste is food.”
BPGL: How do you see this challenge affecting industries? What’s in it for them?
MOVASSAGHI: This is a “positive environmental agenda” for industry, too, and this is another important fundamental perspective. When you look at any Fortune 500 company that puts out a sustainability report, what they’re really focusing on is reductions — reducing greenhouse gases, reducing paper usage, reducing water usage. That’s a good first approach, but what we really want to encourage is economic development and environmental benefits going hand in hand together.
So we want to encourage companies, big and small, to produce products — produce a lot of products — and have consumers use those products, but have those products be benign products by design. Regulations are a part of it, but regulations aren’t going to get us to an innovative market force. We have to engage companies, we have to create that space for them to be able to create these products, look at their existing products, and what they can take out of them, put back into them, meet consumer demands, but still make them benign.
BPGL: That sounds like a huge task.
MOVASSAGHI: We’re biting off a lot. It is a big task. We’re happy that we have a game plan to move forward. Let me put it in scope of how big the scale of our issues are. We know of chemical hazard traits of the variety of kinds that I mentioned, epigenetic types in addition to the traditional stuff — yet some of the best estimates are that there are upward of 150,000 chemicals that are in use in commerce. So we need to expand our knowledge about what’s out there and how it’s being used. We have a big task, but it’s an exciting arena to be in.
BPGL: When you speak about chemicals that companies are using in consumer products, can you name a few that we should watch out for?
MOVASSAGHI: That’s what we’re trying to develop in our Green Chemistry Initiative. We are asking, “What is it that we need to take a look at?” And we’re not there yet.
For instance, in the emerging science of nanotechnology, the Woodrow Wilson Center has inventoried over 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials currently on the market. These are just the products where the manufacturers have identified these new chemicals. The products range from new water treatment technologies to paints, aircraft components, electronics, cosmetics, sporting goods, and others.
It’s amazing. All these technologies are in use, and we need to ask, “If they’re used to clean up the water and create cosmetics, have we looked at some unintended byproduct usages?” Because, in California, we have the famous example of us trying to clean the air by adding MTBE as a fuel additive to our gas. Then we realized, we’re really negatively impacting our water supply, because MTBE is so water soluble, and it gets into the water supply. So, our Green Chemistry Initiative really wants to look at regrettable substitutions as well. Right now, we’re still in the development phase, so I don’t have any specifics to give you.
BPGL: What is the reason that companies have used toxic chemicals for so long? Is it profit that drove them to make unhealthy products?
MOVASSAGHI: I’d say it’s two issues: one might be profit, always looking for a cheaper alternative. But when we’ve talked to chemists and toxicologists, even in big companies like S. C. Johnson, some of them were honest, and said, “Look, nobody asked us to look at these unintended byproducts.”
We had an interview with the gentleman who dubs himself as potentially the father of the plastic bottle. He’s a lot older now, and he said, “When I was a young chemist in the lab, all they told me was, ‘make a bottle that’s lightweight and plastic and easy to use.’ ” Nobody asked him to make a biodegradable plastic. If somebody would have asked him, he would have started on the research.
Another part of it is that we’ve only regulated what ends up in the trash and the waste. We’re now going to go into the chemists’ labs and engage them in that dialog. This is not science fiction. We’re actually in a partnership with Stanford University, where we’re working on designing a fully cradle-to-cradle, biodegradable plastic bottle from methane gas that’s generated out of landfills. When these bottles are later collected and taken back to the landfills, they will generate more methane that will go back into the production cycle. So the plastic bottle doesn’t end up on a beach, doesn’t end up in your local creek or your park; it becomes a cradle-to-cradle plastic bottle.
This kind of technology is doable; we just have to ask our chemists and our engineers in these companies to do it. One should never underestimate the ingenuity and creativity of the American workforce. And that’s what we’re tapping into.
BPGL: You mentioned, “Waste equals food.” William McDonough talks about reusable cars that consumers would return to the automobile manufacturers in five years. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? Is what you’re doing based a lot on McDonough’s work?
MOVASSAGHI: McDonough is one of the folks who has really influenced this arena, and we’ve talked with him and tried to learn from him. But we’ve talked to a number of folks. John Warner, who is the father of green chemistry and wrote the book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, has been very influential in this arena as well. He also talks about waste as being food.
The car example is one that people can probably relate to, because a lot of folks have seen those Toyota commercials where a bunch of people show up, and in a beautiful, pristine area, put a car together. Then, eventually, the car degrades back into nature. That’s the world we want to get to.
But, right now, it seems like we are focused on single end points. For instance, we might focus on greenhouse gases that might push us to say, “Okay, car manufacturers, go make lighter cars, so they use less fuel.” But what seems to be proposed for those lighter cars might have other consequences, like if they have a lot of plastics, they might off-gas in a car. That’s just one example.
BPGL: So, basically, green chemistry is about rethinking the way we create everything. You look at the long-term effects of every single piece that goes into a product, and every process that we use to create it. Then you can take every product at the end of its life and reuse it to make something new. You’re not talking about recycling, as in “crumple a plastic bottle and throw it in the recycling bin.” What you’re saying is, when the product’s useful life is finished, it becomes the new raw materials for the next product. Is that correct?
MOVASSAGHI: Exactly. Recycling was a big step forward, but recycling rarely extends the life of a product. At the end of the day, you’re still throwing it away. For example, a lot of us here in the office are very diligent about double-sided printing and buying recycled paper. But if you look at the energy usage that goes into recycling paper, some types of recycling reintroduce chemicals to get the paper to be white again, or fluffy again, or bond again, and they’re actually making that recycled paper product toward the end of its life even more toxic than virgin paper.
BPGL: That’s frightening.
MOVASSAGHI: That’s why green chemistry is a fundamental shift in thinking. This is a buzzword, but it’s really a paradigm shift. If you think of every single product out there, it’s daunting. In some ways, it’s hampered the creativity and imagination of regulators, because, even in places like the European Union or our Canadian counterparts, they’ve developed a lot of ways to look at lists, but what do you do with the lists?
In California, we want to say the lists are just not enough. We want to engage and think about and develop a way to have these alternatives put out there that are safer — not the safest, because TSCA has taught us, it takes 30 years to figure out what is the safest alternative. We don’t have the luxury of waiting 30 years. We banned PCBs 30 years ago, and if you go to some parts to California, PCB is still very persistent.
So we like to jump-start the circle a little bit. As a way of not making this daunting, our first approach is going to be to look at products that get used by — and get touched, licked, tasted by — sensitive sub-populations: children, seniors, pregnant women, and so on.
BPGL: Do you think it makes sense in every product to be made with cradle-to-cradle in mind? For instance, when you buy a file cabinet, you want that file cabinet to last a good long time. So, would we think cradle-to-cradle with everything, or just for certain things that are designed to have a shorter lifespan?
MOVASSAGHI: I’m of the big belief that cradle-to-cradle can encompass all products eventually down the road. Because it’s not everything in a file cabinet that’s toxic or limited reuse. It could be simply that a veneer is added to make it look good. It could be that a particular paint is added to make it rust proof. And sometimes changing one or two simple chemicals gives you the same functionality, gives you the same performance. And when the life is over for the file cabinet, you could easily put it back into reuse.
BPGL: What do you suppose are going to be your greatest challenges? Are the people who make the chemicals and the products that use dangerous chemicals fighting against green chemistry? After all, you’re going to be taking some money away from them.
MOVASSAGHI: It’s very surprising. When I first started in this process, I really expected that’s where we were going to have our biggest challenge. But to my surprise, I’ve had companies like S. C. Johnson, Caterpillar, and others come in here. And when they talk to us, it’s very obvious that they recognize the economic potential of having green products.
I’m not talking about greenwashing, like taking their existing product and slapping a green label on it. They recognize that consumers are getting more sophisticated and are asking for and are willing to pay for products that are green. So they recognize the market potential. Plus, if you are an S. C. Johnson, and you’re potentially dealing with a knockoff that is cheaper, this is a way that you could differentiate yourself in the market and really make a profit and still be green.
BPGL: You could capitalize on it.
MOVASSAGHI: Yes, you could capitalize on it. I was talking with a Boeing representative, who said, “Are you going to make us have cradle-to-cradle Boeing 747s?”
And I said, “A Boeing jet is not quite in the same category as a toy kids may constantly put in their mouths. But, eventually, if you guys can take out, for instance, some mercury switches or some of the glues in the carpet in your planes, you could market your planes as greener than what Airbus is doing. Doesn’t it make sense for you?” And we saw light bulbs going off in their heads.
Not all of industry is opposed to us. The stickiest part is going to be, how do you keep all of the industry folks engaged? Sometimes I have competitors in the room together, and they tell me separately, “We want to talk with you, but we’re afraid that our competitor is going to find out our financial business practices that might hamper us.” The trick here is creating a neutral space that folks can engage each other and have this dialog without being afraid of revealing confidential business practices.
BPGL: What advice do you have for folks who might want to lobby their legislators to get something like California’s Green Chemistry Initiative implemented in other states?
MOVASSAGHI: The advice is actually the same as we gave here in California: Look at what’s happening in your own backyard.
Legislators are just like a big portion of the population – they’re concerned when we see rising rates of autism, and we see rising usage of these chemicals and products. What tend to happen, usually, are two things: There are the regrettable substitutions. When we ban a particular chemical, the manufacturer slaps one electron on it, and it’s suddenly not that chemical; so it’s not regulated. Or sometimes you have bans without plans. You ban a particular chemical, but there’s no enforcement resources to go out and make sure it’s not out there in the marketplace.
So don’t take those approaches, try to bring the different stakeholders in the room and have a discussion about safer alternatives. That way you don’t have to waste all your resources in trying to figure out how bad is bad. Try to say, “Well, this thing is showing up in places it shouldn’t show up. Some early indications are that it’s harmful, so let’s start thinking about a safer alternative.” It’s a fundamental shift, and sometimes folks look at it askance, like, “What do you mean, we shouldn’t ban things?”
BPGL: Then in each state, you’re suggesting bringing legislators together with industry.
MOVASSAGHI: Let me give you an example. We were talking with our counterparts in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are a total of only 35 staff at FDA looking at food packaging. A single firm from the East Coast made a presentation to us about how they look at what they do for their clients. I asked, “How many people do you have working on this?” That single firm had 65 people working on food packaging. And that’s just one of many firms, many food companies.
Government resources are always going to be a challenge. But to us, you’ve got to bring in industry; you’ve got to bring in the environmental folks; you’ve got to bring in the elected officials, and have a mutual discussion. This is a way to innovate, re-industrialize the country, but re-industrialize it in a green way.
BPGL: What are some generic examples of products you are working on right now that affect some of the sensitive populations?
MOVASSAGHI: This is a much harder question than we even anticipated, because there is no common taxonomy on how you define products. Sometimes, depending on a federal to state level, or between different trade associations, a bottle is a bottle in one place; it’s a container someplace else; it’s a storage device someplace else. But the kind of things we’re looking at are anything from baby bottles to prosthetic teeth for seniors to any of these kinds of products.
BPGL: Are you in favor of the proposed Kids-Safe Chemicals Act that’s being supported by the Environmental Working Group?
MOVASSAGHI: That is one approach, but it still relies a little bit too much on waiting for stuff to end up in the waste stream.
The EWG has been a valuable partner from the environmental side. If I could pat ourselves on the back, in addition to California and the Department of Toxic Substances Control actually having a green chemistry program like no other place in the world, the other thing is our ability to keep together this grand coalition of folks that ranges from the Environmental Working Group to the Sierra Club to the League of Conservation Voters and the Dows and DuPonts of the world. That’s usually not an easy thing to do when you’re a regulatory agency.