So-called green chemists use all the tools and training of traditional chemistry, but instead of ending up with toxins that must be treated after the fact, they aim to create industrial processes that avert hazard problems altogether. The result is new materials that are not only safer to use but less expensive to make. Yet a decade after the phrase “green chemistry” was coined, less than 1% of patents in chemical-heavy industries are green.
Why hasn’t the popularity of green chemistry risen more quickly? I believe it is partly due to the fact that the up-front expense of redesigning factories often eclipses the potential long-term savings of going green. Also, there’s a psychological factor: Changing worldviews takes a long time—especially when those worldviews involve how business is done.
Of course, many manufacturers have embraced the call to go green, offering a seemingly endless array of environmentally friendly products on store shelves. But sometimes what appears to be greener may not be. Take the new trend in the furniture industry of soy-based foams. While soy is certainly a natural product, its use in furniture and mattresses remains a very small percentage of the overall end product, with the primary ingredients being synthetic materials such as polyurethane.
According to the US Federal Trade Commission, some manufacturers are making green claims without sufficient evidence. On October 6, the FTC proposed a broad revision to its “Green Guides,” which govern what can and cannot be said on product labels.
According to the proposed changes, companies will be required to qualify their claims on product packaging and limit them to a specific benefit, such as how much of the product is recycled, instead of making broad claims like “eco-friendly.” Any companies that use third-party certifications will have to make sure they substantiate the claims they make. Products that are labeled as degradable must decompose within a year, and products or packages that claim to be compostable must break down in the same time as the materials they were made with.
If the FTC guidelines are approved, then going forward, marketers who make claims about renewable materials must explain how the materials are sourced, and whether the item is made entirely of renewable materials or not. Another reason I believe these stricter guidelines are a good idea is that green chemistry—when applied in a useful way—can positively impact the health of consumers.
As a case in point, consider natural rubber latex, the popular material used in everything from surgical gloves to balloons to condoms. The availability, ease of production and performance of latex products make natural rubber latex a raw material preferred by product manufacturers and users around the globe. Unfortunately, out of more than 200 proteins contained within it, 13 are known to be allergens. The American Latex Allergy Association estimates that 3% of the general population exhibits some form of latex allergy, thus hindering their use of such products.
What if those protein allergens could somehow be removed from the latex while retaining the positive properties of the material? It turns out that they can. The key step involves the addition of aluminum hydroxide, a well-known protein binding chemical, to the latex while it is still in liquid form. The aluminum hydroxide, which is safe enough to be used as an antacid, attracts and binds proteins to it, and the resulting protein complexes are later flushed out of the latex. Taking this step can save end-product manufacturers who adopt this process a great deal of water and energy compared to traditional latex product manufacturing, because although traditional manufacturing also involves some removal of proteins from latex, it does so through a much less efficient process that involves repeated cycles of rinsing, leaching and drying that, in many cases, does not attain the protein reduction seen with the aluminum hydroxide modified NRL. The aluminum hydroxide modified natural rubber latex is slightly more expensive than traditional latex, but it is priced comparably to, and in many cases less expensively than, alternative synthetic materials.
What is encouraging about this development is the fact that it allows manufacturers of latex products to continue working with natural rubber latex—which is derived from the Hevea brasiliensis rubber tree and is 100% biodegradable—rather than turning to any one of those synthetic alternatives. PVC vinyl, styrene, nitrile, neoprene and other materials are made from petrochemical derivatives that are neither biodegradable nor compostable. The incineration of these synthetic products can lead to the liberation of toxins and carcinogens, such as dioxin, cyanide, vinyl chlorides, and hydrogen chloride. Unlike these alternatives, natural rubber latex has a minimal impact in the environment; leave it outside and it will disintegrate roughly as quickly as an oak leaf will.
Looking at the big picture, green chemistry starts with renewable resources, recycles its reagents, uses less hazardous solvents, and streamlines complicated processes. If and when the advantages of green chemistry become common knowledge, manufacturers and consumers—as well as Planet Earth—stand to benefit.
William R. Doyle is the president and CEO of Vystar Corporation, the exclusive creator of Vytex® Natural Rubber Latex, a multi-patented, all-natural raw material that contains significantly reduced levels of the antigenic proteins found in natural rubber latex. He can be reached at (770) 965-0383.