Meet Dr. Pete: An Interview with Our Chief Scientist

Meet Dr. Pete: An Interview with Our Chief Scientist

As 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. 

We spoke with Dr. Pete to hear more about his background in chemistry, his innovations in the product world, and his vision for a more sustainable future.

19 year old Dr. Pete at Peking University

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Tianjin, a large seaport city in Northeastern China.

Were you always into chemistry?

My high-school chemistry teacher was so passionate and dedicated to science that he inspired me, triggering my interests in chemistry.

So I majored in Chemistry at Peking University for my undergraduate studies. At 24 I received a graduate scholarship from the University of Minnesota, where I earned my PhD and studied molecules’ assembly behaviors at interfaces. At 29, I got my first job at Unilever working in their research laboratory in Edgewater, NJ as part of the product development team for Dove and was granted more than 20 patents on personal cleaning formulations and manufacturing technologies.

Peking University in Bejing

Can you share any personal beliefs or experiences that have led you to do what you do?

When I worked and lived in New Jersey in the ‘90s, the heavy pollution and the remnants of the previous 100 years of the chemical industry were evident everywhere.

For example, at the Edgewater site where I worked, coal tar, paving, and roofing materials were made at the site by various companies in the late 1800s. Quanta Resources operated an oil processing facility at the site from 1974 to 1981, when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) closed the site. A lot of chemical waste was buried underground and it seeped into the river. When walking with co-workers along the Hudson River during lunch breaks, we always noticed dark colored chemical waste streams dripping into the river from rock cracks along the riverbank. It took more than 20 years of massive cleanup efforts by the Army Corp of Engineers to revitalize that part of the Hudson River and adjacent territories.

Map of Quanta Resources at Edgewater

During that time, my family lived in a township called Wayne, where part of the land, previously owned by W.R Grace, was contaminated with thorium, decayed uranium, and other heavy metals. In 2010, after nearly three decades, the Superfund site, contaminated with radioactive material, was finally cleaned up. 135,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil was removed from the site and the groundwater was cleaned to a livable standard. It cost $125 million. These experiences really shocked me and ignited my interests in green chemistry and sustainability.

In 2008, while managing technology acquisition projects for Henkel in Scottsdale, Arizona, I collaborated with Dr. Jay Golden, an Arizona State University (ASU) professor on using Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to study the health and environmental impacts of our consumer products. In the summer of 2008, a small group of sustainability leaders from the University of Arkansas and Walmart visited Arizona. Jay and I had an informal discussion with them about LCA and its potential applications in understanding and comparing different products’ sustainability profiles. That was the starting point of a multilateral collaboration that led to the founding of The Sustainability Consortium (TSC). I had been active in TSC since then and later become the Home and Personal Care Sector’s Co-Chair and one of TSC’s board members.

What excites you about working with these kinds of formulas?

My experiences in TSC and corporate sustainability leadership positions have given me a very different and expansive view when I look at designing and developing a new product. It is all about the entire system and the holistic approach of letting the system dictate each of the components, not the other way around.

For example, the traditional way to develop a laundry detergent could start by defining a formula, finding a compatible delivery package to carry the formula, and adding the shipping box etc. But through the sustainability lens, we often find that this approach may solve an old problem and create a new problem at the same time. For example, the industry replaced fatty soap with petrochemicals in laundry and household cleaning products in the 1930s. As a result of this transition, cleaning performance was greatly improved but many of the petrochemicals used and their byproducts raised serious environmental and safety concerns.

When we designed Dirty Labs Bio Laundry Detergent, we first designed and defined our system—i.e., powerful stain removal with skin and fiber friendliness, no Prop 65 chemicals, 1, 4-dioxane free, fragrance allergen free, minimizing plastic waste, and maximizing recyclability. Once we defined the master criteria for the system, each component of the product was consequentially defined in greater detail.

The systematic approach we've taken results in a significant transformation of our Bio Laundry Detergents, encompassing changes in formulation, packaging, and user interaction. We're reshaping high-performance cleaning by eliminating toxic chemicals from the equation.

Can you tell us why the environment matters to you?

In many media reports and public literature, environmental friendliness and human safety are often presented as two different concepts. But I think that they are always closely correlated and in many cases are two different sides of the same issue. For example, microplastic particles are often referred to as environmental pollutants. When marine life, such as fish, ingest microplastics, there is reported evidence of potential liver damage. When humans ingest the fish carrying microplastics, they may not always pass through our bodies harmlessly and could have imposed potential safety risks about which we have very limited understanding. So protecting the environment is always defending our safety and health because we all live in the same ecosystem.

How does sustainability apply to your work?

Nowadays as a consumer, you will run into “greenwashing” everywhere and every day. Part of it is just purely marketing schemes by using unfounded sustainability claims. In many other situations, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the scientific criteria and standards behind each category of consumer products. When we apply sustainability to our product development and business operations, understanding the science of each component and each step of our supply chain in the product life cycle is critically important. With this knowledge, we are capable of committing resources to the most needed areas that matter the most to safety and environment impacts.

To be honest, I have to admit that sustainability is also a new frontier where science is still in its infancy stage. When we run into areas where we need to make a decision when scientific guidance is out of reach, we apply common sense to fill in the gaps, keeping the best interests and safety of our customers and environment in mind.

Dr. Pete at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Can you tell us why human safety matters to you and your formulations?

In considering human safety matters related to a consumer product, the industry is more confident in defining and addressing “acute effects”, which occur rapidly as a result of short-term exposures, such as a skin or eye irritation.

On the other hand, the industry is much less confident in and has much less knowledge about how to deal with “chronic effects”, which generally occur as a result of long-term exposure, such as carcinogenic or reproductive impacts.

At Dirty Labs, we place human safety at the very top of our priority list when we develop a new product. Our principle is to eliminate all of the unnecessary hazards based on both acute and chronic effects. When there is still uncertainty but reasonable doubt about an ingredient’s safety based on its chronic effects, we will remove the ingredient from our formulation to ensure the safety of our consumers.

And as a chemist, why do you think consumers should care—both about the environment and their own safety?

As I mentioned previously by using microplastics as an example, our own safety and environmental friendliness are two sides of the same coin, which is mostly true for the cleaning product industry. Switching to something better for our health often means the same for the environment, and vice versa.

At Dirty Labs, the key to resolving potential conflicts between product efficacy, human safety and environmental issues is through creative innovation, from which we find alternative and superior paths to maximize the benefits for people and the planet.