How can we protect humans and the planet against the impacts of chemicals while maintaining the countless benefits they provide? A growing number of actors in the outdoor industry argue they have a solution: Green Chemistry.
“Everything is chemistry,” a lecturer stated at an environmental course I took some years ago. Colors, flavors, the stomach acid you felt this morning — indeed, the world is made up of chemistry. Yet chemicals are one of the biggest environmental and health challenges we have in the sports industry. What makes certain chemistry dangerous, while other chemistry is part of the natural cycles?
Europe has the toughest chemicals legislation in the world, called REACH. However, despite a strict regulatory framework, there are chemical challenges that no legislation can solve. Most of the chemicals we use in our products are not adapted to the ecosystems and organisms they end up in, which can cause problems both in the short and long term. The legislators are working hard to eliminate the substances that are most dangerous to us, but the regulation process is complex and slow. New substances are constantly developed and considered harmless until proven otherwise, and many companies do not have full control of the contents in their products. According to a recent report from a Swedish consumer organization, where fitness exercise equipment was tested, 24 percent of the products contained hazardous substances.
Taking a new approach to chemicals
Are there better ways to develop chemistry? Yes, says a group of chemists and biologists whose knowledge has been gathered under the concept of “Green Chemistry.” In short, green chemistry involves using renewable raw materials, minimizing waste, creating biodegradability and avoiding toxic or hazardous substances along the entire value chain.
Even though green chemistry is a young discipline, spearheading companies have begun their journey into green chemistry and a few even use it as a foundation for their existence. These three examples from the Nordics, for example, are likely to be talked about the coming year:
Finnish NordShield claims to have solved bacterial and viral problems for textiles and other surfaces with a treatment based on residues from the forest. The technology creates a strong membrane on the textile fiber where bacteria do not thrive, and it is claimed to withstand a long period of use while being biodegradable and safe to users.
“It all starts with a need for a solution and providing the answer to this in a greener way,” says NordShield CEO, Kristoffer Ekman. He continues:
“For the industries to adopt greener technologies it needs the right mindset and will from them, but providers also need to provide solutions that are equally effective so that producers do not need to compromise efficacy and serving customer needs and wants. We work together with likeminded companies that truly value sustainability and want to take responsibility for the whole lifecycle of the product. This means active choices from brands and manufacturers to choose sustainable alternatives.”
Swedish Organoclick, meanwhile, has solutions for several industries based on renewable raw materials and with processes that make them biodegradable. For the sports industry, the most famous product is Organotex, with impregnation and detergent for water repellent clothing. Organotex is available both as a consumer product and industrial treatment for functional fabrics.
Mårten Hellberg, CEO at Organoclick, explains:
“Green chemistry for us is organic chemical products produced from renewable raw materials, which is non-toxic. However, renewable or bio-based chemistry can be both synthetically produced or based on biomolecules. Synthetic green chemistry can be as non-degradable as fossil-based chemistry. “Real” green chemistry I would therefore define as chemistry based on natural biomolecules or its derivatives, which are 100% biodegradable.”
Moving beyond chemicals altogether
There are also some actors who have found ways to circumvent the need for conventional chemical-intensive processes altogether. Finnish Spinnova, for example, manufactures a cellulose-based textile fiber in a process which eliminates the commonly used process chemistry and associated environmental challenges. They have found a way to make textile fibers out of cellulose where pulp, cellulose rich agriculture or textile waste can be included as raw materials. The process can be completely circular, meaning the material can be recycled over and over again.
Shahriare Mahmood, Sustainability Director at Spinnova shares:
“Spinnova’s sustainable process is well beyond good chemistry as the fiber is produced through a mechanical process. The innovation is inspired by nature to lessen the burden we create to nature not only in a very green way but over a very efficient high yield process. It can be truly seen as an alternative for the chemically intensive regenerated fibers, as well as demanding cotton fiber.”
We are still in the early childhood of green chemistry and are likely to see many more exciting innovations emerging in textile materials, plastics, composites and fuels based on the same principles. Of course, we may come across less successful green chemistry solutions and ones that do not live up to all their marketing promises, but it is inspiring that effective chemistry can be performed in completely new ways that do not adversely affect nature and people. This is exactly what we need: great measures of creativity, courage and innovation to achieve sustainability while maintaining the many benefits we’ve attained in this industrial era.
12 Principles of Green Chemistry
1. Prevent waste: Design chemical syntheses to prevent waste. Leave no waste to treat or clean up.
2. Maximize atom economy: Design syntheses so that the final product contains the maximum proportion of the starting materials. Waste few or no atoms.
3. Design less hazardous chemical syntheses: Design syntheses to use and generate substances with little or no toxicity to either humans or the environment.
4. Design safer chemicals and products: Design chemical products that are fully effective yet have little or no toxicity.
5. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions: Avoid using solvents, separation agents, or other auxiliary chemicals. If you must use these chemicals, use safer ones.
6. Increase energy efficiency: Run chemical reactions at room temperature and pressure whenever possible.
7. Use renewable feedstocks: Use starting materials (also known as feedstocks) that are renewable rather than depletable. The source of renewable feedstocks is often agricultural products or the wastes of other processes; the source of depletable feedstocks is often fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, or coal) or mining operations.
8. Avoid chemical derivatives: Avoid using blocking or protecting groups or any temporary modifications if possible. Derivatives use additional reagents and generate waste.
9. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents: Minimize waste by using catalytic reactions. Catalysts are effective in small amounts and can carry out a single reaction many times. They are preferable to stoichiometric reagents, which are used in excess and carry out a reaction only once.
10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use: Design chemical products to break down to innocuous substances after use so that they do not accumulate in the environment.
11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution: Include in-process, real-time monitoring and control during syntheses to minimize or eliminate the formation of byproducts.
12. Minimize the potential for accidents: Design chemicals and their physical forms (solid, liquid, or gas) to minimize the potential for chemical accidents including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment.
Photo: Bill Oxford on Unsplash