Chemical industries need to gain public trust through going green

There is a lack of trust and general negative perception towards the chemical industries which can only truly be overcome through a 'greening' of chemical processes and products, delegates at the second annual Green Chemistry and the Consumer symposium in London were told this week.

This lack of trust is having a knock on effect across the industry, from the number of students choosing chemistry at university, to a negative perception of certain brands in retail markets.

However, Professor James Clark, Director of the Green Chemistry Network (GCN), chairing the conference, said that by focusing on the application of green chemistry and educating the general public of the role chemistry had to play in helping solve many of the environmental problems faced today, the public s trust could be re-won.

“The Green Chemistry and the Consumer project was created by GCN to help engage the retailer in green chemistry research, to forge new partnerships between researchers, retailers and producers, and to promote a life-cycle consideration of chemicals in consumer goods,” he said. “Green chemistry can have an important role to play in such things as the WEEE directive, RoHS, and many more.”

He pointed out that the whole life cycle of products and their ingredients needed to be taken into account throughout the supply chain to fully assess their environmental impact. He gave the example of tantalum, a chemical used widely in electronic components of, for example, mobile phones. As a chemical, it is fairly innocuous non-hazardous and unlikely to cause great harm to human health.

However, when the whole life cycle of the product is examined, it can be seen that it is unsustainably mined in an unregulated environment in Africa, causing mass deforestation and huge piles of waste, not to mention the fact that often, the people doing the mining are not protected by any form of health and safety law.

“What this shows is that we have to look far deeper about the use of chemicals and the regulations thereof,” Prof. Clark said.

The symposium offered presentations on all aspects of the supply chain, from the agricultural development of alternatives to synthetic feedstocks, to greening of manufacturing and production processes, through to the role of the retailer in examining product liability.

Mike Lancaster of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA) said that the industry had already made a number of achievements towards sustainability, such as environmentally friendly paints and paint strippers, targeted pesticides, life-style enhancing drugs, degradable packaging, energy efficient and safer cars, and an increased use of renewable resources.

“More companies are using some form of eco-check on their products and product development,” he said, “taking the whole lifecycle into account.”

This was emphasised by Dr Peter Schonfield of Unilever who gave examples of lifecycle analysis in practice. He said that Unilever found that two-thirds of water use in their products was in the ingredients and manufacture, not the use of them.

“We found this quite strange, especially as a majority of our products have water as a key component of use, such as shampoo, washing powder and soap,” he said.

Unilever found that irrigation in agriculture was the main water user in the whole life cycle, and are now looking into ways to utilise sustainable agriculture as part of a sustainable product development approach.

Mike Barry, sustainability manger of Marks and Spencer, summed up the lifecycle analysis approach by saying that it was imperative to get the consumer interested once again.

“There is a growing scrutiny of product liability and the risk becomes personalised as consumers know what products pose a risk to them and their families. In turn, retailers are becoming far more cautious about their own use of the products and technology involved,” he said. “Trust is an increasingly important commodity in business and green chemistry is at the heart of solutions in building that trust.”

By David Hopkins

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