Tag Archives: replacements

Novel ‘Green’ Chemical Endocrine Screening Protocol Looks Beyond EPA’s

Inside EPA: Risk Policy Report – 07/12/2011
By Jenny Hopkinson

A group of private and government scientists is moving closer to completing a testing protocol for determining whether new “green” chemicals entering the market are safer than those they are intended to replace and do not pose endocrine disruption risks, an effort that extends beyond EPA’s screening program, which focuses on existing chemicals.

Advancing Green Chemistry (AGC), the non-profit group leading the efforts, has joined with National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Environmental Health Sciences, Inc and other private sector groups, to develop a five-tiered testing protocol that will eventually be available free to chemical producers to determine whether their products may disrupt human endocrine systems, an outcome that has been linked to a slew of health problems including obesity and breast cancer.

An AGC source says the protocol is close to being submitted for peer review and developers hope it will be completed in about another year.

The protocol is designed to address concerns that newly developed green chemicals — which are intended to be safer alternatives than existing substances — may not be much better for the endocrine system, which regulates the body’s hormones, than the existing chemicals they are being created to replace.

While EPA is required by law to test a slew of existing chemicals under its endocrine disruptor screening program (EDSP), so far the agency has been “stuck” in what it can get done and has been struggling for almost two decades, the AGC source says.

Delays with the EPA program have long been a concern. For example, former House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) last year pushed legislation that would have created a new endocrine screening program at NIEHS, in part because EPA had been slow to establish its program. “While EPA does have the EDSP they’ve been more focused on toxics and only in the past few years focused on endocrine disruption,” her spokeswoman said (Risk Policy Report, Dec. 22, 2009).

Similarly, the AGC source says EPA is “snarled up in the morass of trying to regulate existing chemicals, and that hamstrings people.” Testing for endocrine disrupting effects “is something the government should be doing, but it just doesn’t seem to be something that’s happening,” the source says.

The source puts the blame on industry for the delays in EPA’s program. “There’s a lot of vested interest in the chemicals on the market” by their manufacturers, and that is slowing down the process, the source says. So far the agency “hasn’t been able to sort that out.” Rather than get bogged down in attempts for regulation of the chemicals, “we are trying to just look forward,” the source says.

But that is not to say that EPA hasn’t shown interest in the protocol. Paul Anastas, head of the Office of Research and Development, has been involved with developing the system, although the source says while he has been “constructive and supportive,” there has been no indication that EPA will adopt the methods. “But if they want to take over our project, great I think that would be better for all of us,” the source adds. “This should just be the way we test chemicals, period.”

A second source, however, argues that EPA’s programs aren’t capable of looking at such sensitive effects of chemicals. “Unfortunately there are people still working in the lab in EPA . . . who will say none of this work has any value,” the source continues. “They are stuck with toxicologists who are still doing old school toxicology.”

As a result, AGC, about a year ago, brought together a group of chemists, toxicologists and other government and private scientists to examine what the source describes as a “burgeoning wave” of new science on endocrine disruption with the goal of developing a tool for chemical makers to ensure in the development process that a chemical will not have effects on hormones.

The result is a five-tiered protocol that begins with what the source described as “quick and easy” Quantitative structure-activity relationship (QSAR) modeling and looking at a chemical’s structure, followed by in vitro high-throughput screening assays, validated and specialized cell-based assays, amphibian and fish tests, with the final tier being mammalian testing.

While chemical producers can run a new substance through as many or as few tiers as they choose, if a chemical passes through all the tiers, then it is quite likely to be safe, said Thaddeus Schung, a postdoctoral research fellow with NIEHS, speaking at the American Chemistry Society’s 15th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Washington, DC, June 22.

Schung said that the system aims to be a logical, consensus based tool to determine endocrine activity based on sound science. “Were trying to use this brain power here to come up with a sensible effort to . . . predict chemical toxicity.” Our hope, Schung said, is to “kick some of these chemicals out of production and make way for some new chemicals that are being developed by green chemistry.”

The AGC source echoes this, saying the protocol will provide an important new tool for chemical producers. As chemists develop these new materials “it’s really hard for them to know whether or not what they’ve designed has the potential to be an endocrine disruptor.”

“Green chemists are being asked to design the next generation of benign chemicals and they don’t have the tools to do it,” the source continues, adding that chemists are not toxicologists. “This is the new design criteria — you want to make chemicals that don’t act like hormones and don’t rewire people’s systems.”

And another source says that given the public backlash on products containing such endocrine disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), “industry is staying ahead of this now,” the source says. “They realize that this is the way we have to go.” – Jenny Hopkinson

Hitting the Bottle.

By DOMINIQUE BROWNING
New York Times
Published: May 8, 2011

SUDDENLY, there’s a baby boom going on around me. I’m making weekly shopping trips to stock friends’ nurseries, and I’m struck by how many signs on the shelves advertise BPA-free bottles, BPA-free sippy cups. It breaks my heart. Manufacturers might be removing BPA, a chemical used to harden certain plastics, from their products, but they are substituting chemicals that may be just as dangerous, if not more so.

Read original post here.

Chemists convert seaweed to chemicals and fuels.

Kim, B, J Jeong, S Shin, D Lee, S Kim, H-J Yoon and JK Cho.  2011.  Facile single-step conversion of macroalgal polymeric carbohydrates into biofuelsChemSusChem 3:1273-1275.
Synopsis by Evan Beach
Apr 28, 2011

An innovative idea – if adapted to a large scale – could take advantage of an abundant but so far little-used raw material to make biofuels, according to a team of green chemists in Korea. The secret ingredient: seaweed.

Many varieties of seaweeds thrive in the world’s saltwater oceans and seas. Their growth is fueled by carbon dioxide. Unlike most conventional land-based plants, it is possible to produce multiple crops in a year without requiring fertile land and fresh water.

In recent years, microalgae – which are invisible to the naked eye – have been researched and exploited for use as fuels. Mostly ignored in this boom were the macroalgae – the kind you can see with your naked eye and find at the seashore. These seaweeds usually have lower oil content and have not attracted as much attention from chemists and manufacturers.

What they lack in oil, many types of seaweeds make up for in carbohydrates. The red algae species used in the current study is almost 80 percent carbohydrates. These sugars form long chemical chains called agar.

The Korean researchers found two ways to convert the agar into useful products.

In one, they found that agar reacts with an acid catalyst to produce a small molecule known as HMF. HMF is a valuable precursor to a variety of chemicals. To draw an analogy with petroleum refining, HMF would be considered the bio-based equivalent of a petrochemical like toluene that serves as the ultimate starting material for many commercial chemicals. The yield of HMF from the red algae was higher than expected, and this was attributed to unusual simple sugars and linkage patterns in the agar structure.

By adding a different catalyst to agar and introducing a solvent for the reaction, the yield was improved and two different chemical products were formed. Both of these chemicals are well known as biofuels and could be used as building block structures for specialty chemicals as well.

The product yields might be further improved by changing the seaweed growth conditions or even the species. Since the researchers discovered that the agar structure leads to unique reactivity, future work could take advantage of ways to tweak it towards a more favorable composition. Other combinations of catalyst and solvent could be explored as well.

Article on chemical safety heavy on policy, light on science.

Posted by Evan Beach at Apr 25, 2011 07:00 AM | Permalink

A recent article in the New York Times calls attention to a frustrating situation that is unfortunately all too common in the world of chemistry: supposedly “green” alternatives to problem chemicals end up being just as problematic. The article explores potential policy fixes, but doesn’t mention any role that actual chemists – the molecular designers – could play in a solution.

The article describes replacement of bisphenol A (BPA) with bisphenol S (BPS). BPA, which is used in thermal receipt paper and some plastic products, has come under consumer pressure because research suggests it leads to a range of harmful effects in humans. Unfortunately, it is emerging that BPS isn’t much better, so “BPA-free” labels may give consumers a false sense of security.

Reform of U.S. chemical policy – for example the Toxic Substances Control Act – is discussed in the article as a way to improve the safety of chemicals found in commerce. However, policy changes don’t get to the heart of the problem: that most chemists are not trained to understand toxic phenomena, so it remains extremely difficult for a chemist to predict whether a new chemical will be hazardous or not.

The “green chemistry” movement aims to give chemists control over environmental and health impacts of chemicals and has been working to provide better tools and training. Ongoing research is showing that it is possible to use the results of toxicity tests – ranging from computer models to animal studies – to create molecular design guidelines. By understanding the chemical properties that lead to harmful effects, chemists can design safer products for everyday use.

Molecular design for reduced hazard therefore represents a scientific approach that would complement any political solutions to the problem of toxic chemicals. Times readers would have benefited from a discussion of the state of the science, which is rapidly developing in laboratories worldwide.

State Chemical Regulation: Green Chemistry, Chemical Bans and Other Efforts to Limit Chemical Exposures.

There is growing trend in US states to create legislation regulating chemicals in consumer products.  This is a good thing for green chemistry in that these regulations and bans can act as drivers for green chemistry innovation. But what about the so-called “Green Chemistry” laws in various states?  Obviously banning or restricting chemicals is not actually doing green chemistry (no one is making molecules here, they are banning them. Chemistry is making molecules.). So what kind of laws are out there that actually do enable, support, or assist the development of Green Chemistry? Here is a hint: check out Michigan and Minnesota (but beware of California’s example).

State Chemical Regulation: Green Chemistry, Chemical Bans and Other Efforts to Limit Chemical Exposures.

by: Stephen C. Jones, Greenberg Traurig, LLP – Philadelphia Office

April 15, 2011 (Previously published on April 12, 2011)

To the consternation of many manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, states increasingly are taking steps to regulate chemicals contained in consumer and personal care products. The consumer and personal care products industry has made it known that it would prefer consistent, comprehensive federal regulation, rather than having to comply with a mixed-bag of varying state and local requirements. However, according to Healthy States, a November 2010 report prepared by the advocacy group Safer States, in the last decade both the number of states adopting chemical regulation laws, and the number of laws they have adopted, have tripled. MIKE BELLIVEAU, SAFER STATES, HEALTHY STATES: PROTECTING FAMILIES FROM TOXIC CHEMICALS WHILE CONGRESS LAGS BEHIND 6 (2010) [hereinafter HEALTHY STATES], available at http://www.saferstates.com. According to the study, 18 states passed 71 new chemical safety laws during that period. Id. All indications are that this trend will continue.

Read the full article at Martindale.com

Chemists, biologists collaborate to design endocrine disrupter screening tool.

01-Apr-2011

As part of an unprecedented collaboration in the US between environmental health scientists and synthetic chemists, a working meeting was held last week as part of an ongoing project to create a design protocol to screen new materials for endocrine disrupting activity. Hosted by the non-profit organisations, Advancing Green Chemistry and Environmental Health Sciences, the meeting brought together about two dozen leading researchers in fields that include molecular biology, endocrinology, genetics, and green chemistry to create a screening tool to be used as new chemicals are being synthesized with the goal of detecting potential biological activity before a new compound goes into commercial production.

While endocrine disruption has been recognised as a health hazard for more than two decades, no screening tool comparable to the one this group of scientists is developing currently exists. To be effective at detecting endocrine disrupting activity, an assay would have to take into account potential low dose and non-linear effects of chemicals and the many possible interactions such chemicals can have with genetic receptors. The goal of the project is to produce a suite of peer-reviewed assays for synthetic chemists, the great majority of whom are not trained in biology, endocrinology or toxicology. The protocol is being designed for use in both commercial and academic laboratories.

“In the US, there has been a 15-plus year effort underway at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which has still not come out with a comprehensive testing protocol for endocrine disruption,” said Karen Peabody O’Brien, executive director of Advancing Green Chemistry. “Rather than wait for regulation of what is already in use, this group is putting together a design tool for chemists who are trying to create the next generation of safer materials or ‘greener’ chemicals. We are not trying to regulate industry but give chemists the means to find out well in advance whether they are making something that, to the best of our knowledge, is not biologically active,” explained Dr O’Brien.

She stressed that this is the first toxicological screening tool to be developed by such a cross-disciplinary team of scientists and that the intent is to provide chemists with a way to establish confidence that new materials – particularly alternatives to existing problematic chemicals – are safe.

ORD Chief Sees Need For EPA To Craft Green Chemistry ‘Design’ Guidance.

Bridget DiCosmo InsideEPA.com. Originally Posted: Mar. 14

2011 EPA’s research chief Paul Anastas is calling for the agency to begin crafting a guidance for how to design benign industrial chemicals and chemical processes, and establish metrics and criteria for both design and assessment of what specific chemical properties should be considered in reducing a substance’s ability to manifest hazard.

Anastas told the Society of Toxicology’s (SOT) 2011 annual meeting in Washington, DC, March 8 that the agency should set as a goal development of a set of design parameters that establish criteria about the properties of new chemicals that render it intrinsically less hazardous than comparable substances currently in the marketplace. “The goal is to develop a set of design rules that can inform and be useful — just inform and be useful — for molecular design and reduced hazard,” Anastas said, during the meeting. Anastas’ presentation to SOT, “Molecular Design for Reduced Hazard,” floated a set of “design protocol” criteria for modifying chemical properties in new chemicals that could potentially pose hazard that should be considered within such a framework, such as reduced bioavailability of a chemical, or its ability to reach the system of an organism.

“One of the grand challenges of molecular design is thinking about this in a systemic way,” Anastas said. The need to transition ORD’s current risk assessment paradigm into a more systemic and sustainable approach has been a long-standing priority of Anastas’ at the agency, culminating recently in the development of a newly integrated research program, Chemical Safety for Sustainability, which includes green chemistry in its planned research agenda

The approach Anastas is suggesting appears to be different from that currently used by the agency’s toxics office, which uses a set of alternatives assessment criteria, including bioaccumulation potential of substances, to qualify products for its Design for Environment (DfE) labeling program. But for the most part that methodology is based on specific toxicity endpoints, like carcinogenicity, rather than using chemical properties to evaluate the mechanistic potential of a chemical to cause adverse effects.

Anastas said that the pharmaceuticals industry considers a general, uniform set of criteria meant to circumvent hazard in its drug manufacturing processes, saying the industry approach “couldn’t be more different from the vast majority of industrial chemicals in design purposes.”

Anastas’ remarks also take the agency some way toward adopting a definition of green chemistry — an approach some environmentalists and public health advocates have previously called for EPA to adopt in order to limit chemicals’ toxicity.

Read the entire story at Inside EPA.com

Activists, Industry At Odds Over Future Of Key ‘Green’ Chemistry Standard

By Bridget DiCosmo

See Original article at: InsideEPA.com

November 29, 2010

Environmentalists and industry groups are at odds over the adequacy of a landmark proposal for a national green chemistry standard, with some environmentalists calling for the “green” moniker to be dropped because the draft standard does not allow consumers to assess the relative toxicity and energy efficiency of various chemicals.

But industry groups are pushing for the standard to be implemented and resisting environmentalists’ calls to create a weighting system to assess the relative benefits of various chemicals, saying it was never intended to regulate chemicals’ toxicity and will limit manufacturers’ flexibility to adjust the standard to their own needs.

The draft standard was never intended as a “substitute for Toxic Substances Control Act reform,” one industry source says.

NSF International, together with EPA, the Green Chemistry Institute, the American Chemistry Council, and others last month unveiled a draft reporting standard, “Greener Chemicals and Processes Information Standard,” which details data reporting requirements for chemical manufacturers to help customers identify products with “green” attributes, including less-toxic chemicals and more energy-efficient production processes.

Supporters say one of the goals of the draft standard is to reduce “greenwashing,” or unsubstantiated environmental claims, in the marketplace and remove ambiguity.

But developers of the document have already appeared to soften their original goals, dropping their earlier effort to name the standard as the “Green Chemistry Standard.”

One key source suggests the new document could be renamed the “Hazard Information Standard.” Other critics say it should simply be renamed as the “Chemicals Information Standard.”

The first source says that while the draft serves as a “good starting point” to begin getting information about chemical hazards, many downstream industry users want access to information about a chemical’s various transformations during its lifecycle, highlighting a significant weakness of the draft document.

“It won’t tell you where the raw materials came from, and it won’t be able to tell you ‘A is better than B,'” the source says. Another source said the standard was a “fantastic tool” for getting information in one place, but added that the document had limitations. “It’s important to realize I can take the most toxic, hazardous, energy-using product in the world and [attain] the standard.”

A third source that participated in crafting the draft standard said that the lack of a weighting system for comparing chemical characteristics to one another was likely due to heavy pressure from the chemicals industry during the creation of the document. Public health and environmentalist groups were “not given enough of an input,” nor were downstream users who would have to rely on the standard to make business choices, the source says. “I’ve heard some fairly negative feedback.”

The standard, which is voluntary, uses a three-tier system to classify health-related characteristics of chemicals for setting data-reporting requirements, which determine how much information a chemical manufacturer must submit about a chemical to achieve compliance with the standard. Among other things, the draft establishes a list of human health endpoints that the company must submit available studies on, such as a chemical’s carcinogenicity or neurotoxicity.

Environmentalists Raise Concerns

But in comments filed ahead of the Nov. 16 comment deadline, two environmental groups — Citizens Environmental Coalition and Glynn Environmental Coalition — are calling for the adoption of a “weighting system” to help end users determine what characteristics would make a chemical less hazardous or more energy-saving than another.

Without such a comparative system, the draft’s shortcomings “severely limits” the goal of the standard and shift the burden of assessing product’s safety onto end users, according to the environmentalists’ comments.

“The standard is not constructed to give any guidance as to what actually constitutes ‘greener’ chemicals and/or chemical processes. In spite of the title of the standard, it provides information without any usable metric to assess how ‘green’ a chemical or process is, and, indeed, is not able to clearly define what makes a chemical ‘greener.’ The burden for assessing ‘greener’ is shifted entirely onto the user, even if the manufacturer does third party certification,” the comments say.

The draft also fails to provide “adequate opportunity” for a manufacturer attaining the standard to “describe how it stands out from the pack in advancing green chemistry principles, in substituting safer chemicals for more toxic ones, and going beyond regulatory compliance to voluntarily undertake pollution prevention projects,” according to separate Nov. 16 comments filed by the Citizens Environmental Coalition.

In those comments, the environmental group lauded the objective of the standard–to offer a uniform way to define and report certain categories of information, their respective data elements and data quality criteria.

But the environmentalist group claims in its public comments that the standard fails to set any kind of measurable “goal” for safer, less toxic, or less hazardous chemicals or chemical processes.

Instead, the document gives notable attention to energy use and efficiency in the manufacturing process, the comments say. “We expected to read a standard that was primarily about manufacturers moving to safer chemicals and processes, reducing toxicity and process safety hazards, reducing or eliminating the discharge to the environment of chemical by-products or wastes. Instead we see a standard which calls for improved reporting and disclosure on chemical hazards about a manufacturer’s existing chemicals and processes, while asking for a lot of information about energy and water use.”

The environmental group also says that the “most serious failing of the standard” is that the draft would allow “a highly toxic and persistent, bioaccumulative chemical to be called ‘greener’ and the process which made it to be called a “greener chemical process.'”

The environmental groups also noted in their Nov. 16 public comments that there was an “absence of public health professionals and environmental NGO’s whose focus is on toxic chemicals policy. More importantly, the standard included few, if any, experts in green chemistry, green engineering, and other critical fields relevant to the standard.”

Industry Calls For ‘Flexible’ Standard

But the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in Nov. 16 comments says the standard has the potential to fill a need in the marketplace for a systematic analysis using green chemistry principles. ACC also says in its comments that the standard can be revised periodically once it is finalized, but that it should be flexible to allow manufacturers to adjust the approach to fit their business needs. “We believe that including an inflexible, overly stringent set of reporting elements at the outset is a significant barrier to adoption and use,” the comments say.

And the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Alliances says in Nov. 15 comments that the information requirements outlined in the draft standard are “extensive” and could create challenges for smaller manufacturers. “To help alleviate this and to encourage use of the standard we ask that the drafting committee consider how it might ease its usage as it continues to develop,” the comments say. — Bridget DiCosmo

Chemists propose to design safer chemicals – right from the start.

Voutchkova, AM, TG Osimitz and PT Anastas. 2010. Toward a comprehensive molecular design framework for reduced hazard. Chemical Reviews 110 (10):5845–5882.

Synopsis by Adelina Voutchkova
Nov 22, 2010

Chemists at Yale University are calling on others in their discipline to understand how to design and build safer, less toxic chemicals – right from the start. Their ideas on how to do that are proposed in an article published in Chemical Reviews, which follows an earlier paper that tackles the same topic.

A main target when designing and building unique compounds should be for the compounds to have minimal toxicity yet be commercially useful, according to the paper’s authors. The heart of their suggestions include a broader understanding of toxicity, development of more robust safety tests and use of product labeling programs.

The detailed proposal is a first step toward a new, concerted way of thinking about the design of new commercial chemicals. It focuses on maximizing the desired functions – like cleaning power for detergents – while at the same time minimizing their broader health and environmental effects.

While this seems logical, it is generally not the case. Chemists and engineers tend to focus on building chemicals with novel properties that may help solve current industrial or remediation problems or benefit society in some other way. Unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, the potential for new commercial chemicals to cause adverse health effects on people, wildlife and the environment is not always considered upfront.

For example, of the 700-plus commercial chemicals introduced to the market each year, more than 85 percent have no health and safety data. This is because obtaining such data is often too costly and time-consuming.

But, the potential threat of chemicals with unintended human and environmental hazards has become increasingly clear. Phthalates – as plastic additives – are now known to disrupt hormonal balance. Some insecticides – such as the repellent DEET – are severely toxic to the nervous systems of mammals. Other widely-used plasticizers – such as bisphenol A – can interfere with reproductive functions, as increasingly shown from animal research.

These are just a few examples of commercial chemicals whose unintended hazards were discovered long after they were first introduced to the market. To avoid such pitfalls in the future, the authors combed chemistry, biology and toxicology research articles for ways to evaluate chemical safety. They compared how different disciplines test substances meant for products and devised a different approach for chemists to use as they venture to design new commercial compounds.

First, the chemists and engineers who make the compounds need a better understanding of how chemical properties influence toxicity – that is, how they are absorbed and the biological responses to chemical exposure. Many toxicology databases with this information already exist – especially in the area of designing drugs to perform particular functions. Drugs that survive the digestive tract and efficiently enter the blood can be specifically designed. In a similar way, if a commercial chemical is designed to not enter the bloodstream, it will be excreted and thus, much less likely to be toxic to people. Unfortunately, designing a chemical that is not toxic to humans or other animals is vastly more complex than merely ensuring it is excreted quickly, but this is a start.

Second, the right testing tools are needed to scan the creations for toxic effects before product development goes too far. Understanding a chemical’s behavior in a laboratory setting – with test tubes, cells and tissues – can help in understanding its behavior when it interacts with humans and the environment.

In some cases, predictive laboratory tools can forewarn of hazards, but there are still many hurdles to overcome. The available tests and tools are not often applied until the chemical has been produced. In addition, no reliable predictive tools exist for many of the dangerous but subtle hazards – such as endocrine disruption.

An example of an impressive effort to guide development of new chemicals is being carried out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program. The program will help industrial scientists consider the environmental and health implications of new chemicals they plan to introduce to the market. Manufacturers who meet the stringent criteria for human and environmental health safety can place a special DfE label on their products, which will also benefit consumers as they strive to make better informed decisions about the products they purchase. Companies that do not meet the criteria may miss out on the marketing advantages of the DfE product label.

Clearly, there is a need for scientists to understand which chemical features are associated with particular hazards and design new chemicals rationally to avoid these elements at the drawing board. Although this approach cannot obliterate the need for detailed health and safety testing, it can significantly improve the odds that a new chemical will not be highly hazardous to people and animals. Bridging the gap between chemistry and toxicology may be a necessary first step to a new way of thinking that could radically reduce chemical hazards.

Distinctions between biopolymers and bio-based polymers important (Media review).

Posted by Evan Beach at Nov 08, 2010 04:00 AM | Permalink

The origins of bio-based plastics need to be clarified in a Vancouver Business Journal article that highlights the use of the materials in industrial applications.

A recent story in the Vancouver Business Journal provides an overview of the challenges manufacturers face when trying to work with plastics that incorporate natural molecules – so-called bio-based plastics. Companies are exploring new ways to handle the raw materials and optimize the molding process.

The article draws attention to an important trend in the world of plastics and green chemistry, but could have been more precise in the language used when referring to the polymers involved. Polymers are large molecules made of smaller, repeating molecules that are chained together.

The reporter does a good job of explaining the difference between two major types of bio-based polymers: “biodegradable” and “compostable” polymers. The distinction can be important  when manufacturers or consumers choose an environmentally friendly disposal method for a particular material. International standards define a biodegradable polymer as one that breaks down into smaller fragments due to the action of bacteria and other microorganisms. To be “compostable,” a polymer must degrade completely into carbon dioxide, water, minerals and biomass; and it has to do this quickly without hurting the overall compost process.

He could have also clarified that biopolymers and bio-based polymers are different.  “Biopolymer” refers to polymers that occur in nature or are produced by biological action. Cellulose, starch, proteins and polyesters made by bacteria (known as PHAs) are examples of biopolymers.

Then there are the synthetic polymers – like polylactic acid (PLA). These materials usually biodegrade and are made from biological raw materials, but are prepared by chemical methods.  PLA is made up of small molecules found in nature, but the polymerization process is a human invention. Similarly, nitrocellulose, which was historically used in photographic film, is a chemically modified version of a natural material, but does not occur naturally. PLA and nitrocellulose would be more accurately referred to as “bio-based” or “bio-derived” polymers.

These distinctions may seem minute, but they help clarify for manufacturers, regulators and consumers to what extent a material is truly natural.