Unlearning what we know about chemistry


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I watched the livestreamed portion of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s annual summit as a save from the sting of not being able to attend in person. First things first, it didn’t work — I’m still quite disappointed I couldn’t attend.

I will say, though, that the hourlong session, “Design turns ambition into action,” had a great lineup of speakers. For anyone who missed the livestream, I’d encourage you to give it a view.

When you live and breathe circularity, it can often be difficult to be wowed by content. Even in such a new area, a lot of ideas can feel incremental, derivative and chipping away at the edges of the problem. The overall lack of “wow” ideas often does, but should not surprise us. After all, most folks working on circular economy innovations have been part of the existing linear economy their whole lives. It can be hard to ignore the current reality and think about a better future. Therein lies the key takeaway I had after watching the EMF Summit 22 livestream:

We need to unlearn much of what we’ve internalized over the course of the last century to make the progress we need to see.

There are multiple ways this is true, but I’ll focus on just one here. We need to start by unlearning what we know about chemistry. I’m clearly a bit biased here as a chemist myself, but don’t be alarmed: The person I’ll reference is a chemist, too. Ilham Kadri, CEO at Solvay, spoke at the summit about how chemistry is the “mother of all industries.” Indeed, without chemistry, we’d have a very limited set of materials to work with. Even the vast majority of bio-based materials on the market are synthesized, modified or fortified with chemistry. What does it mean to unlearn what we’ve learned about chemistry to date? I’ll take a shot at answering that question from a few perspectives:

Number 1: The chemist

One of many things I’ve learned since I finished my time as a bench chemist is that you can’t expect chemists to design safe chemicals if they are not taught how. As a “basic science,” chemistry is taught the same way in most places and from the same old books. That part of the deal is, in my view, OK. The basics of chemistry have not and probably will not change.

The flaw today, though, is that chemists aren’t necessarily required to learn toxicology, green chemistry or the way biological systems synthesize novel chemicals. If you ask Paul Anastas and John Warner, authors of the seminal book on green chemistry, they’ll both tell you this is what you need to change. In order to design safer, greener chemistry, we need to change the way we teach chemists.

Another important part of retraining chemists is to get them to stop thinking linearly. Typically, a chemical reaction is written out on paper something like this:

As chemists, we know that all of those chemical reactions are theoretically reversible. Even knowing that, we aren’t usually considering an actual desire to reverse a reaction in the future. This is tricky, but I will argue here that chemists need to think more circularly if the economy is to function more circularly (Full disclosure, I just had to do a web search to make sure “circularly” is actually a word). This means designing chemical reactions, especially those for polymeric substances, that can be readily reversed to create new materials.

In order to design safer, greener chemistry, we need to change the way we teach chemists.

Number 2: The product designer

If chemists need to learn how to design safer chemicals, then product designers and engineers must learn to evaluate products for safety and circularity. Regardless of the sector, product development processes should incorporate considerations for human and environmental health, atom economy, energy efficiency and product and material circularity. This is too often either not done or done without any real controls over the final product. Having spent a considerable amount of time as a corporate sustainability practitioner and having seen the difference between companies with and without sustainability integrated in the product development process, I can confidently say it is inexcusable to be developing products without sustainability checks and balances in place today.

Number 3: The end user

Users of products must develop both a healthy skepticism about claims and a willingness to ask tough questions of manufacturers and retailers alike. The age-old (at least as long as I’ve been around this space) adage is that B2C companies don’t get as much pressure from customers to make sustainable choices as B2B companies. In some respects, this is true. Large corporate customers tend to have their own sustainability goals that can be reached at least partially through sustainable purchasing. They also have purchasing power that few individuals have.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, forget the old ways of doing things and move on.

But the individual voices of consumers can be just as loud as those of large corporate and institutional purchasers if they actually use those voices and educate themselves on the questions to ask. In other words, don’t ask if a product is “chemical-free,” or “nontoxic,” or simply “sustainable.” These questions are largely meaningless. Ask instead what certifications a product has to ensure user and environmental safety, if the product contains chemicals on regulatory or NGO lists, or even for detailed ingredient disclosures accompanied by hazard data. While you may not always get exactly what you asked for, rest assured those pointed questions make companies take notice.

my take away

There’s a lot that can (and needs to be) done to move us toward a more circular economy, and most of us have a lot to learn about how to get there. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, forget the old ways of doing things and move on. I believe this to be particularly true in the chemistry space. In order to do that, though, we need to redesign chemistry at the bench, at the material manufacturer and at the product manufacturer. Also, folks at all these levels (and the consumer space) need to be less scared to ask tough questions.

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