Oregon could become a Green Chemistry powerhouse.

Group aims to make Oregon a green chemistry powerhouse

The Oregonian. Published: Thursday, July 01, 2010, 5:51 PM. Original article

Six years ago, Wilsonville-based Coastwide Laboratories introduced a line of cleaning supplies engineered to reduce toxic ingredients and break down into safe compounds after being used.

After a year on the market, the Sustainable Earth line made up 20 percent of Coastwide’s sales, while traditional cleaners made up the rest. Today, the environmentally friendly products make up 80 percent of sales for the company, a division of office supplies giant Staples Inc.

“Fundamentally the proof in the pudding is whether consumers buy the product and continue to buy the product, and what they make the decision to buy the product around,” said Roger McFadden, a vice president and senior scientist at Staples.

A group of Oregon business leaders and researchers have released a report on what Oregon should do to bolster its profile in so-called “green chemistry.” The report profiles Coastwide, Nike, Blount International and Columbia Forest Products, all companies that use green chemistry and are represented on the Oregon Green Chemistry Advisory Group.

To turn Oregon into a green chemistry powerhouse, the advisory group recommends focusing on public awareness and work-related education. Businesses and consumers need to know the advantages of green chemistry and educators need to train a workforce prepared to work in the field.

The report also proposes a hub, housed at an Oregon university, to coordinate green chemistry efforts and a state purchasing policy that gives preference to green products. It also recommends making state economic development funding available for green chemistry activities and creating incentives to mitigate the cost of adopting green chemistry.

The full report is posted on the Oregon Environmental Council’s website.

Green chemistry is based on a set of principles designed to promote environmentally sound production starting from the first design steps. The final products should be non-toxic and should break down into benign substances once they’ve been released into the environment.

The principles also promote efficiency, such as eliminating manufacturing chemicals that don’t make it into the final product and using renewable raw materials.

For the companies, that can mean more efficient production, better compliance with current and future regulation and the chance to pitch their products as the eco-friendly choice.

“Sustainability is integral to (companies’) long-term success, and increasingly they’re realizing that green chemistry is a great tool for overcoming some of their sustainability-related challenges,” said Colin Price, the research director for the Oregon Environmental Council. Price was a member of the advisory group.

Green chemistry is growing among chemical corporations, pushed by government regulation, landmark cases of chemical contamination and, more recently, the rise of a broader sustainability movement, said Todd Cort, the North America regional head of sustainability consulting firm Two Tomorrows.

Cort said the largest chemical companies deal mostly with businesses and aren’t necessarily as responsive to consumer demands. But companies down the supply chain can pressure their suppliers to produce more environmentally friendly chemicals.

“These companies are large enough to recognize the reputational risk from indiscriminate chemical production and also the operation benefits of not having these potential liabilities on the books,” Cort said.

Critics of point to a lack of standards for what constitutes environmentally friendly chemistry, Cort said. Some companies use old government regulations in their toxicity testing, and determining environmental impact can depend largely on context. For example, shopping bags that decay in the light won’t do much good in a landfill.

But the green chemical industry has nowhere to go but up, Cort said.

“There’s absolutely zero growth in the non-green sector,” he said. “Everything is getting more strict. All chemical production will have to slowly improve its green credentials over time.”

Elliot Njus