Ask Dr. Pete: What is Green Chemistry?

Ask Dr. Pete: What is Green Chemistry?

A product inventor, innovator, and sustainability expert, he’s the brains behind our Bio Laundry Detergent and was a founding member of The Sustainability Consortium. Last month he covered how water hardness or softness affects the efficacy of your cleaning products. This month he’s back with a thoughtful explainer on Green Chemistry—and why it matters today.

How would you define “green” chemistry? What does that mean? Why does it matter? 

“Reduce, reuse and recycle” has been promoted and practiced over the past decade. But we have seen steady increases of toxic and non-degradable waste per capita released into the air, land and water during the same time. What is the reason for this?

One simple explanation is that the living standards in the US and around the world have been incrementally improved over time, so people consume more and generate more waste. That is true, and our collective efforts to “reduce, reuse and recycle” have not been able to offset the incremental trend of consumption and waste generation. 

Drilling deeper to the root cause, though, we found that business costs have also been preventing larger scale implementation of “reduce, reuse and recycle.”  Taking the current plastic wastes crisis as an example, the industry has been producing more plastics with a variety of functionalities at lower costs. In many cases, the costs to recycle and reuse those plastics are much higher than just purchasing virgin plastics. That makes the plastic recycling business more like a corporate charity or something that requires public sponsorship.

But it does not have to be this way. Aluminum containers for example are well accepted for beverage and food products (and now used by Dirty Labs for our bio laundry detergents). Recycled aluminum bottles have much lower production cost and energy consumption (around 90% reduction) when compared with those made from prime aluminum. So the post-consumer aluminum containers are sought after by the recycling businesses and have a 70% recycling rate on average. Aluminum is also perpetually recyclable. In contrast, plastics lose their functional value after being recycled a few times.

However, the industry cannot afford to simply replace all the plastic containers with aluminum ones. In many applications, plastics are much more flexible to be fabricated into different shapes and features at affordable costs. Some would say the logical next step is to invent new materials that behave like plastics, but are technically and economically more recyclable or biodegradable. And indeed, bioplastics have been explored, with noticeable progress made recently. That type of innovative work in general is referred to as Green Chemistry 

Green Chemistry requires a holistic view and approach from production to end of use, which is referred to as the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  LCA study results sometimes trigger surprises and controversies because they are contrary to people’s conventional perceptions. For example, the polyvinyl alcohol (often referred to as PVA or PVOH) water soluble film has been used as a primary packaging material for the increasingly popular unit dose laundry detergent pods. Because of PVA film’s light weight, many would think that it has a sustainability advantage over the conventional pourable plastic detergent jug. But a recent LCA study on laundry detergent packaging suggests the opposite, in terms of the overall energy consumption, global warming potential, and other environmental and human toxicity indicators. 

Admittedly, the life cycle aspects of Green Chemistry can be complicated given the multiple impact factors involved. But understanding the issues under such a framework and creating more transparency to the public are the prerequisite toward real problem solutions.

Ultimately, Green Chemistry is about designing better materials and processes to make a product with less harmful waste throughout the product’s entire life cycle, and this is precisely what we are working so hard at here at Dirty Labs with laundry detergent.

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