Chicago Green Jobs

3 Reasons We Need The Green Products Innovation Institute
May 25, 2010, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Tastes like snozzberries!

Observe this comical ad for DDT flavored wallpaper. Isn’t it hilarious how back in the fifties corporations and governments rushed to create all kinds of products with awesome new chemicals without even bothering to do much testing! What’s that you say? Of the 800,000 chemicals produced and used in the US the EPA has only required testing on 200?


The good news is that the Green Products Innovation Institute was launched this month with the purpose of creating a design framework to help businesses design products without relying on traditional toxic chemicals. The GPII is located, of course, in California largely as a result of that state’s Green Chemistry Initiative. My vote for the most interesting aspect of the new org:

The GPII is developing an open, public database that tracks product chemical data and also creates a list of “positive” alternative chemicals, materials and processes. This will help companies reformulate or retool to create new products.

Here are three reasons why we need a functional database of positive chemical alternatives fast:

1. Kids with higher levels of pesticide in their systems are twice as likely to have ADHD. The medical journal Pediatrics recently published a study concluding that “organophosphate exposure, at levels common among US children, may contribute to ADHD prevalence.” The key phrase here is “at levels common among US children.” Organophosphates are found in roughly 40 pesticides commonly used in the US agricultural industry, which means that the odds that your strawberries have a light dusting are pretty good. And considering that organophosphates were originally developed for chemical warfare it’s not too surprising that research scientists are discovering that they affect our neurochemistry.

2. American newborns come pre-polluted with 300 contaminants. The President’s Cancer Panel released a report on May 5th with this astonishing conclusion, adding that these contaminants come from normal day-to-day living, not, as one might have hoped, from licking the walls of a chemical plant. The report comes with a list of helpful hints for mitigating your child’s risk that includes: “Choose foods, house and garden products, toys, medicines, medical tests that minimize children’s exposure to toxins.” So get cracking on that – I’ll wait!

3. No one has any idea how toxic the 850,000 gallons of chemicals BP has dumped into the Gulf actually are. Forget the oil for a minute if you can. To cope with the oil, BP has dumped a world record breaking 851,000 gallons of Corexit, a chemical dispersant which, according to its Material Safety Data Sheet, has undergone no toxicity studies. The EPA has taken issue with BP’s decision to use Corexit, a stance which the New York Times reports is complicated by the fact that “there are many methods for estimating the toxicity of chemical oil dispersants and no single standard prevails.” Emphasis mine. That’s right: no studies, no standards, no way to know what BP has let us in for.

Good lord that is depressing. What should we do?

These three issues have one key point in common: the only way for us to protect ourselves is to carefully research every toy, cleaner, sofa, strawberry and pork chop that we buy to make sure we’re minimizing our exposure to the endless list of potential hazards. Oh, and try not to live too close to an oil rig.

This is not a sustainable solution. We desperately need our institutions – governmental, corporate, and social – to take a systematic approach to weeding out harmful chemicals before they are spun into plastics or sprayed on our food. The GPII has the potential to create a practical tool to help inventors do just that. I will be watching with interest.


Green Chemistry Case Study: Passing the Buck on Cadmium
January 12, 2010, 5:24 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Thought experiment time! One of my favorite things about business school was reviewing case studies. It’s so interesting to dig into how business decisions are made in the real world where there are complications and loopholes and conflicting needs. There’s a doozy of a business problem in the news these days, so I thought I’d try my hand at boiling it down.

The situation:

You know how kids love jewelry and don’t have a lot of pocket money? Well, retailers like Walmart and Claire’s meet this market need by stocking super cheap Chinese imports, like Disney themed “Princess and the Frog” charms. Only it turns out that lots of these imports are made with cadmium, a shiny and malleable metal that also happens to rank 7th on the Center for Disease Control’s priority list of the 275 most hazardous substances to human health. Cadmium is a known human carcinogen and tests show that children can ingest unsafe levels of this poison by biting, sucking, or swallowing it. An independent study by the Associated Press showed that some of these charms and necklaces were made of up to 90% cadmium by weight.

“How horrible!” I hear you cry. “Who is responsible for this outrage?”

The likely suspects:

1. The Manufacturer

The LA Times interviewed a Chinese jewelry manufacturer:

“Business is business, and it’s all up to our client,” said He Huihua, manager of the Suiyuan Jewelry Shop at International Trade City in Yiwu. “We just make what our clients order. If they pay more, we use the better raw material, and vice-versa. From a few cents to a few dollars, we can make the same style of jewelry product with a different raw material.”

Asked what he thought about the health risks associated with cadmium and other toxic metals, He said: “I can’t be overly concerned about that.”

2. The Retailer

ABC ran an excerpt from Claire’s statement:

“Claire’s has its products tested by independent accredited third-party laboratories approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in compliance with the commission’s standards, and has passing test results for the bracelet using these standards.”

Two more suspects after the jump.

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Sustainability’s Next Big Thing: Green Chemistry
January 6, 2010, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Job security for mad scientists: on the rise? Image by practical owl via Flickr, CC license

It’s 2010, and you know what that means! That’s right – it’s sustainability trend prediction time! Not to toot my own horn, but I have a pretty good track record with this (tooooot). I saw green business trends on the rise in 2005, started pursuing my Green MBA in 2006, and then dropped out to work with Walmart on sustainability in 2007 back when everyone thought they were kidding about going green. Good times!

And since we all know from watching the stock market that past performance is a perfect indicator of future success, I thought it would be fun to try predicting the Next Big Thing in Sustainability. One word: Plastics. Or, to be more specific, Green Chemistry.

There are tens of thousands of chemicals floating around in the products that we use every day and the overwhelming majority of them have never actually been tested for harmful effects on human health or the environment. Here are five indicators that show we’re about to hit a tipping point:

1. BPA Breakthrough. Every trend needs a breakthrough celebrity, and Bisphenol-A is the clear front runner. BPA packs a one-two punch: not only does this estrogen-mimicking  chemical have measurably nasty impacts on health, it’s in EVERYTHING.  As a result BPA bans are on the rise by both governments and manufacturers, bringing big visibility to the fact that products we use every day without thinking twice are full of chemicals that are hazardous to our health. Which brings me to my second point: won’t someone please think about the johnson?

2. Threats to manliness. Let’s face it: most folks are prepared to brush off scary news about health threats with a dismissive “everything causes cancer anyway, so oh well” attitude.  It’s BPA to the rescue again:  exposure to BPA impacts adult male sexual performance! Well why didn’t you say so! That’s the kind of issue you can build some real buzz on, which is important because public concern makes it much easier for governments and corporations to move aggressively to make changes.

Three more indicators that green chemistry is going big after the jump.

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