In July 2022, Alberta CleanTech company CleanO2 launched a bar soap that uses CO2 captured from the atmosphere as a feedstock to produce the ingredient potassium carbonate. While investment is still needed to scale up solutions like this to enable companies’ ambitious social and environmental goals, this type of thinking demonstrates green chemistry innovation that leverages new technologies in the production of raw materials.
As large multinationals, like Walmart, set ambitious zero emission targets, sustainable chemistry becomes a must. According to a paper published by ACS, only about 1% of new chemistry patents have a potential link to green concepts. There is a gap between the innovation pipeline and the ambitious goals companies are setting.
To address this gap, a robust chemical innovation programme must engage multidisciplinary technical teams and secure commercialisation commitments from business leaders. It should include the following four workstreams:
- Goal governance and evaluation tools
- Sustainable feedstocks
- Innovation platforms
- Emerging issues platform
Chemical Innovation Sustainability Strategies
Goal Governance and Evaluation Tools
Sustainability teams need to model footprint reductions for product portfolios to ensure internal and external goals are attainable. Roadmaps should be created, and regular progress reviews conducted.
It is paramount to leverage the right sustainable design methods and tools. Examples of such evaluation tools include Merck’s DOZN, Estée Lauder Companies’ Green Score, both based on the 12 Principles of Sustainable Chemistry and L’Oréal’s SPOT, based on a range of sustainability impact areas.
Goals can include emissions reductions, meeting the restricted substances list beyond regulations, and transforming feedstocks to meet best practices and certifications. Meanwhile, teams must sustain a human-centered approach to ensure end user and consumer needs are met through product performance.
Resilient products rely on environmentally and socially sustainable feedstocks.
Brands and vendors across the value chain should harmonise efforts and collaborate to address feedstocks. In the meantime, companies can act independently to build resilient supply chains. The best practice is to group high footprint chemicals based on their feedstocks. Once high impact feedstocks are identified, solutions can be implemented to maximise sustainability performance and minimise the level of effort. Strategic changes in a handful of feedstocks can have wide impacts on hundreds of chemical ingredients.
Innovations in this space can lower the footprint of chemicals that are difficult to substitute due to their properties and ubiquity across product categories. One example is isododecane, for which companies like Global Bioenergies and Haltermann Carless have developed plant-based and renewable bio-isododecane.
Within a robust sustainable feedstocks programme, a certification portfolio should be maintained. Credentialing ingredients with labels such as RSPO, Rainforest Alliance and USDA Biobased allows customers and consumers to be informed of their purchases and make strategic decisions.
Chemistry Innovation Platforms
To create new categories and replace ingredients that rely on difficult to replace feedstocks, such as silicones, which have a high global warming potential, performance-based innovation is needed. R&D and engineering teams should be trained on green chemistry and green engineering principles. Teams should be dedicated to different initiatives, from implementing alternative chemicals to creating novel molecules with unique characteristics.
A robust programme in the innovation space should include a circular bioeconomy strategy with projects that leverage sources such as agricultural waste technologies. An example of such an innovation is Dow’s EcoSmoothTM, a silica produced from upcycled rice husk, an agricultural by-product, which offers properties similar to PMMA and nylon-12.
Emerging Issues Platform
Eliminating chemicals that are discovered to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, reproductive toxicants or PBTs (persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic) is table stakes. New sustainability impact areas are constantly being identified as NGOs, universities and corporations test and understand the impacts of chemicals on global health. We must avoid repeating the catastrophic consequences of the past by staying alert to emerging issues.
An example of a rapidly evolving issue is the use of microplastics and nonbiodegradable ingredients in formulated products. As more studies surface around the persistence of microplastics in human bodies and the environment, regulators are moving to address the issue. Both the EU and California have introduced legislation on the use of microplastics in formulated products. Few companies have adopted external goals to address biodegradability and microplastics use. Unilever is one of the exceptions, committing to only use biodegradable ingredients by 2030.
Addressing challenges like creating a biodegradable chemical portfolio requires technical expertise as well as properly governed multifunctional teams. A platform for emerging issues is in charge of avoiding regrettable substitutions and leveraging proper testing and certifications, such as OECD 302 and Ecolabel for biodegradation.
Action is needed on chemistry innovation for companies to meet sustainability targets. Companies must act independently and in consortia to address feedstocks while competing on sustainable novel ingredients. Action at the feedstock level can lower Scope 3 emissions across many chemicals by leveraging the renewable economy. Sustainable chemistry innovation can help organisations meet social and environmental goals, while building more resilient product portfolios. New sustainable ingredients and products can win end users and consumers by providing new benefits, and even creating new product categories.