chemical science


by Richard M. Goodman

A recent article published by the Printing Industries of America: The Magazine on combating the effects of greenwashing on the printing industry offered general advertising guidelines drawn from other sources that are worth sharing here.

The Federal Trade Commission has had a set of  “green guides” since 1992 used to decide if an environmental claim made in the media may be deceptive.  It continually updates these guides to meet current knowledge.  The most recent updates in October 2012 incorporate the following:

A proponent cannot make a general environmental claim like “environmentally friendly” unless it includes a specific benefit which can be substantiated.  Claims of “reduced carbon footprint” likewise must refer to a specific and scientifically based and properly measured and documented study. If a company promotes a particular “seal of approval” it must describe what the criteria for obtaining such a seal are.  Terms such as non-toxic, ozone safe must also be specific  as to the nature of the benefit, whether to the environment or humans.  Recycled content refers only to materials recovered or diverted from the waste stream during manufacture or after consumer use, as post consumer waste.  Actual content must be spelled out as, for example, made from 50% post consumer waste recycled materials.  Made from renewable materials is also a claim that needs clarification.  For further details see this link.

The qualifications described above are meant to ensure that a particular advertiser does not commit one of these seven sins of greenwashing, as identified by UL Environment, a part of Underwriters Laboratories:

  1. The sin of the hidden tradeoff — highlighting one aspect but ignoring others.  For example, noting that a particular paper stock  is made from recycled fibers, but omitting that the process to make the paper  emits greater greenhouse emissions.
  2. The sin of claims without proof — for example a toilet tissue manufacturer claims greater use of post consumer wastes but has no proof.
  3. The sin of  vagueness — using the term “natural,” for example, when toxins like arsenic, lead or formaldehyde are natural substances.
  4. The sin of worshipping false labels — implying endorsement by reliable third parties when no such endorsement has ever been made.
  5. The sin of irrelevance — saying a product is “CFC free” when in fact the use of CFCs are forbidden by law.
  6. The sin of the lesser of two evils — hailing a vehicle as a fuel efficient SUV when it gets significant poorer mileage than the average vehicle.
  7. The sin of outright fibbing — claiming certifications, like “energy star,” when not true.

We should all be extra vigilant when we see any promotion of sustainability in any setting, whether in the media, on the internet, on a storefront or even in casual conversation with someone who has an axe to grind.

This topic is excerpted from Printing Industries of America: The Magazine.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org

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by Richard M. Goodman

A recent blog post on GreenBiz.com cites two major areas of concern related to household chemicals: the flammability of textiles and toxicity to infants.  We don’t want our furniture coverings and clothes to feed the flames in a house fire.  Of course, we don’t want infants to ingest or come into contact with materials toxic to their delicate systems.

When regulators recognized that fire retardant chemicals could greatly mitigate the flammability of textiles, many jurisdictions passed laws mandating their use. The two most common flame retardants are PBDE (poly brominated diphenyl ethers) and TRIS (tris [1,3-dichloro-2-propyl] phosphate). In lab tests and in actual house fires, they both offer retardant effects on fire spreading, but not necessarily on fire ignition. However, in toxicity testing, both materials came under scrutiny. For example, PDBE decreased thyroid hormone levels with dramatic effects such as lowered fertility and altered fetal neurodevelopment. TRIS may cause harm for both fetuses in utero and infants.

Do we look for new retardant compounds, direct pregnant women and new mothers to restrict contact with flame retardant textiles for themselves and their infants or simply increase the risk of fire spreading by doing away with the whole concept of flame retardants? My take is to evaluate the health risks (one in a million chance of harm or one in ten risk of harm) and the relative probability of a house fire.  It may be both risks are fairly unlikely, in which case the decision is a difficult one and there may be no right answer.

In another vein, we have to weigh the importance of new materials to make our lives dramatically more convenient: container liners that preserve our foods, for example, or exotic materials that provide for the spectacular performance of smart phones and other mobile devices. The main example I want to focus on is BPA (Bisphenol A).  It is the most common material used to manufacture hard plastic containers and to line aluminum cans to prevent contact between foods and the metal surface, insuring long shelf life and minimizing metal contamination.

In recent testing, the FDA reported a minimal concern for the effects of PBA on the mammary gland, possibly leading to early age puberty for young females and negligible concern for all others.  However, they expressed some concern for effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at high levels of exposure. These contradictory findings led to the recommendation to conduct additional research.

What should we do? Prudence would dictate that contacts expressly for infants, such as in baby food containers, should avoid BPA containing cans or bottles. However, overreacting to their continued use in other circumstances would be unwise.  My view is that minimal safety risks should not lead to extreme solutions, such as the elimination of BPA use until proven safe and effective substitutes are available.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org

cardboard_box_clip_art_22876by Richard M. Goodman

When purchasing necessities or special gifts, deciding what items to buy based on its sustainable packaging can have a significant impact.

According to the Sustainability Packaging Coalition, the two most relevant sustainable packaging principles to the average consumer include:

  • Sustainable packaging optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials.
  • Sustainable packaging is physically designed to optimize materials and energy.

Let’s look at how to implement these two principles.  The recycling industry incurs big expense in their sorting operations to remove undesirable or toxic materials from the recycle stream.  If the packaging industry can create packaging that is easily sorted and not likely to introduce potential contaminants, then it makes the recycling industry’s job easier and ultimately reduces their costs. Proper on-package messaging from the packaging industry can help consumers help recyclers, which in the end helps the packaging industry.  Consumers should insist on greened packaging.

Paper-based packaging such as boxes, containers, cartons, sacks and bags are part of our everyday lives. Unlike other packaging options, paper-based packaging is made from trees – a renewable source that is sustainably grown, managed and harvested specifically for the paper industry – or from recovered fiber, allowing reuse of its products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper-based packaging is recovered more than any other packaging material. Paper and paperboard represent more than 70 percent of all packaging recovered for recycling in the U.S. and, in 2011, 91 percent of old corrugated containers were recovered for recycling.

Another consideration involves the use of compostable materials for packaging. This can best be satisfied if the earth’s biosphere effectively recovers the nutritive value of the basic biological materials and no toxic or dangerous substances are released through any stage of the package’s lifecycle. It should be noted that the conditions for effective biological degradation do not exist in landfills and the release of problematic substances is a further concern. Managed composting and anaerobic digestion with energy recovery are examples of sustainable systems.

In summary, we should observe the following considerations when looking into the packaging of consumer goods:

  • Avoid overly packaged goods.
  • Look for packaging materials that are fully recyclable, including plastics with the recycle labels, aluminum, cardboard and paper.
  • Look for compostable materials and either use them in your own or neighborhood composts or put them into the recycling system.
  • Read the labels to be sure you are removing any potentially toxic materials from the recycling streams.

If we as consumers follow these guidelines we can help promote the use of sustainable packaging and help create a positive reinforcement to manufacturers to increase the use of these materials

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org

Sustainability of Rugs and Carpets

by Richard M. Goodman

We often overlook some rather obvious sources of environmental degradation or missed opportunities to conduct ourselves in a sustainable way.  I recently encountered information about an area of sustainability many of us would never consider.

In talking to a representative from a major carpet manufacturer, I learned that discarded carpets and rugs historically have taken up about 3% of landfills.  While that’s not a huge percentage, it does represent a significant amount of stuff — dirty, old, unsightly carpets that are hard to condense into landfill space and consist of many materials deliberately designed not to be very biodegradable.

What I learned is that the carpet manufacturers through their Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) have developed a program to potentially recycle 100% of used carpets.  It is noteworthy that they have done this rather quietly without a major PR campaign or expensive commercial hype.

CRI has established carpet and rug recycling centers where used carpets can be properly segregated, broken down (where appropriate) into components and raw materials for recycling.  The CRI has defined a Seal Of Approval for carpets that spells out how the manufacturer is to describe the materials of construction and how they are to be recycled.  Components end up in plastics feedstock, new carpets, etc.

The vast majority of carpets are used in commercial buildings such as hotels and office buildings, and owners should recycle carpets when renovating their properties. Consumers can do their part by recycling carpets as well. Montgomery County provides free carpet recycling under its Bulk Trash Collections program.

Currently, more than 70% of carpets nationwide are recycled. The goal is 100%, and when that happens, a significant waste stream to landfills will have been eliminated.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  His periodic blog posts consider aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org.

Sustainability in Clothes Washing

by Richard M. Goodman

A previous blog post addressed the relative hazards or toxicity of cleaning chemicals, emphasizing that minimal human toxicity and environmental impacts promote sustainability.  In addition to detergent selection, another aspect of the simple household chore of clothes washing is the energy utilized.  Depending on the size of your family and how frequently you wash clothes, the energy consumption can be significant.  The major consumer of energy in clothes washing is normally the heating of the water used.  In fact, if you normally do a wash load at say 130 degrees F, your energy consumption is actually 60% greater than if you used 85 degrees.  Further, with the availability of many cold water laundry detergents which use  environmentally green formulas, there is no need to ever use water above 85 degrees.

Another aspect of the home laundry energy usage is the nature of the hot water system in your home.  In one extreme is the typical old-fashion poorly insulated electric hot water tank.  In a climate like Bethesda, the energy consumption of such a tank can be up to 25% of total household energy usage.  Highly efficient modern, especially natural gas, hot water heaters can significantly cut down on energy usage versus the typical tank, perhaps 50% or more.  Of course, if you use 100% solar to heat your hot water your energy usage is virtually zero.

So, here again by paying attention to a routine household activity you can promote sustainability by dramatically reducing energy usage to perform the simple act of cleaning your clothes.  Saving energy for the same material outcome is the very definition of sustainability. And by optimizing the efficiency of your hot water tank and always washing clothes at 85 degrees or less you could potentially save about 5-10% of your total household energy costs even without the use of solar derived hot water.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org.

Facts on Sustainability of Household Cleaners

by Richard M. Goodman

The current issue of Consumer Reports  includes an article titled, “Is your home making you sick?”  Within this article is a separate box on “household cleaners. ”  The issues highlighted include the topics of  contaminants, fragrances, especially the question as to whether some ingredients react together or with, for example, ozone to form formaldehyde or other carcinogenic materials.  Let’s investigate further the comments found in this article to uncover the science it contains.

Toxicity relates directly to the testing of chemicals.  Every industrial chemical must provide a material safety data sheet for its transport and handling.  You can determine the overall safety of a component  by a simple computer search for the chemical name (read it off the contents of the bottle) and the letters MSDS.  Some examples: 7th generation cleaners contain myristyl glucoside, sodium gluconate among other ingredients.  When you click on the relevant MSDS sheets, you will find that for both of these ingredients there are no exposure limits and toxicity is below reportable limits, i.e. completely safe.

When the component is a fragrance, then it may no longer be a single chemical substance.  In fact, many are complex mixtures of natural substances.  On the other hand, fragrances are almost always less than 1% of the weight of the ingredients (the EPA limit for unlisted chemicals); further, some of the pure components may be less than 1% of the fragrance total.  Thus, though one of these components of a fragrance is for example a terpene with known toxic effects, it is in such small concentrations (parts per million) as to be below any threshold for toxicity.

Ironically, some recommendations for a substitute “green’’ cleaning component list white vinegar.  However, this contains ~5% acetic acid.  According to its MSDS, acetic acid is actually considered a slightly stronger hazard because it is highly irritating to the eyes and if directly ingested is actually a serious intestinal irritant.  However, since we normally handle and consume vinegar we discount the objective fact of its relative toxicity as a chemical.  Another example is the ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) used in most window cleaners.  Ammonia is a relatively dangerous chemical.  In commerce to industrial laboratories, ammonium hydroxide is shipped in special containers and lab technicians are instructed do open these with great care while wearing gloves, respirators and face shields.  Often homeowners clean glass surfaces with no protection whatsoever.

This leads to the key message of this article.  We should not panic or overreact merely because one reads that a “chemical” is hazardous, or toxic or may react to form carcinogens.  The more familiar we are, the more we downgrade the risks while often discounting the effects of dose, concentration and how a product is used.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org.

Green Manufacturing of Chemical Products

by Richard M. Goodman

Many lay persons think that all synthetic chemicals are inherently bad.  They also think that natural chemicals are inherently good.  Well, the reality is much more nuanced.  After all, evolution has led to many natural plants, for example, developing toxic substances to ward off their destruction by insects and microbes.  Also, natural products are often complex mixtures of chemical entities so that the interesting chemical species is diluted by many other chemicals, which are at best inert, at worst counter- productive.  Purification from the natural product can be costly and introduce solvents or other species not beneficial.

On the contrary, synthesis can lead to the desired material without toxic or even impurities or diluents.  The secret is what the chemical industry calls “Manufacture by Green Chemistry.”  The concept is based on 12 principles first formulated 14 years ago.  They are:

  1. Prevention
  2. Atom economy
  3. Less hazardous chemical syntheses
  4. Designing safer chemicals
  5. Safer solvents and auxiliaries
  6. Design for energy efficiency
  7. Use of renewable feed-stocks
  8. Reduce derivatives
  9. Catalysis
  10. Design for degradation
  11. Real-time analysis for pollution prevention
  12. Inherently safer chemistry for accident prevention

Some of the terms are obvious, I’ll define the others.

Atom economy means: Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product, i.e. not by products or impurities.

Catalysis means:  Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents, that is, as in nature the right catalyst can cause the desired reaction without any excess chemical material.

Design for degradation means:  Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

This primer hopefully shows how the proper use of chemistry principles can lead to a greener environment.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org.