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January 11, 2011

Minnesota's green chemistry building blocks

No amount of clean living and eating can entirely avoid it: We all have toxic chemicals in our bodies, according to the Center for Disease Control. Exposed through the air, water, food and consumer products, we are bombarded everyday by these toxic chemicals. Fortunately, a new movement in chemistry is working to stop toxic chemicals before they start—in the laboratory.

The first event convened by the Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum and partners at the University of Minnesota: Adding Value through Green Chemistry conference, was held at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs last week. Nearly 200 representatives from government, business, academia and nonprofit organizations gathered to share ideas about how to advance the practice of green chemistry in the state.

Shapeimage_2 Dr. John Warner, of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and one of the early leaders of the movement, described green chemistry as the use of chemicals that pollute less; perform as good or better; and provide a better economic return. To expand the practice of green chemistry, Dr. Warner told participants that we must reform the way chemistry is taught in the United States. He explained how universities currently don't require chemists to take courses on toxicology, environmental impacts of chemicals, or law and policy.

"In chemistry, it was a fait accompli that it had to be hazardous," said Dr. Warner. "All the talk was about mitigating exposure. Green chemistry says, let's look at the intrinsic hazard in the firstplace. Does that molecule have to be toxic? Do I have to spend the money to store, transport, treat and dispose of this hazardous technology?"

Business leaders like Aveda, Segetis, Ecolab and NatureWorks told participants about how they are already implementing green chemistry practices.

Pascal Bordat of the hair and skin care product company, Aveda Corporation, told the group that green chemistry and sustainability were entirely compatible with profitability. Aveda is pushing for 100 percent green ingredients and packaging by 2020.

Segetis is a Minnesota-based company developing alternatives to petrochemicals through sustainable bio-based materials like agriculture crops. Cora Leibig, of Segetis, said a growing emphasis in business on carbon footprints and sustainability gives green chemistry a number of long-term economic advantages. By developing processes that are not toxic, bioaccumulative or persistant, Leibig said companies can save money and resources by not having to invest so much in end-of-the-pipe safety testing.

GreenChem 021 The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Kathleen Schuler told participants that green chemistry practices could save at a minimum $5 billion a year in health costs in the U.S. "Prevention is the core of public health and green chemistry is definitely a piece of the puzzle," said Schuler. "Green chemistry can potentially prevent air pollution, surface and groundwater pollution and food chain pollution." (left, Kathleen and Senator Al Franken at the Adding Value through Green Chemistry conference)

The new Commissioner for Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency, Paul Aasen, pointed out that the  economic benefits of green chemistry should not only include savings from reduced regulatory costs, but also environmental and health benefits. "Green chemistry is as much about changing culture and thinking as it is about science," said Aasen. "We need to make environmental decisions part of everyday decisions."

GreenChem 004 Former IATP President Mark Ritchie (see right), now Minnesota's Secretary of State, and current Minnesota Senator Al Franken also touted the benefits of green chemistry. "Green chemistry is the way forward," Franken told participants.

More details on the presentations at the Green Chemistry Forum, including powerpoints, videos and photos, will be available soon at: greenchemistrymn.org.

Minnesota 2020 has created a short video on green chemistry in Minnesota featuring the University of Minnesota's William Tolman and IATP's Kathleen Schuler. See below:

 

Ben Lilliston

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