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Group launches Minnesota ‘Green Chemistry’ industry initiative

Friday’s day-long conference focused on sharing successes and discussing hurdles in introducing low- or no-toxicity chemicals for industrial and commercial use in Minnesota.

On the same day that MinnPost reported more than 77,200 tons of toxic chemicals were “released” by Minnesota companies, a group of businesses, environmentalists, non-governmental organizations, government officials and academics was launching an effort to create a “green chemistry” industry in the state.

The state’s first Green Chemistry Forum, hosted Friday at the Humphrey Institute by the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), brought together about 200 participants, including scientists, entrepreneurs and longtime environmentalists.

The day-long conference focused on sharing successes and discussing hurdles in introducing low- or no-toxicity chemicals for industrial and commercial use in Minnesota.

One such effort, for example, came from Martha Hilton, who works at Golden Valley-based Segetis. She described how her company breaks down cellulose from corn cobs, wood fiber and other biomass sources to develop non-petroleum-based substitutes for a wide variety of chemical manufacturing processes.

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Among other Minnesota companies highlighting their efforts were Cargill subsidiary Natureworks, 3M (which made the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 list of top releaser of toxic chemicals) and Ecolab. Smaller entrepreneurial companies also were featured, including Georgia-based cleaning company Zep; Colorado bio-fuels company gevo; and Minneapolis-based earthclean, which makes environmentally friendly fire-suppressant systems.

One of the forum organizers, Tim Kapsner, works as senior research scientist for Aveda Corp. He described how an earlier effort to launch a bio-industry alliance in Minnesota foundered a few years ago but said that the timing now was right.

He cited growing public awareness of the need to address environmental sustainability in more fundamental ways, such as changing the way products are developed and manufactured through green chemistry. “Everybody is thinking about the fact that we have to think about that now,” he said.

Kapsner was typical of other attendees I spoke with in his enthusiasm, saying the conference finally coming together “is like a newborn baby” with the attendees sharing “energy, connections, excitement around green chemistry … starting to make a difference.”

Aveda, which promotes its use of natural botanical ingredients in its cosmetics and beauty products, takes great pride in sourcing from local producers around the world. I asked the 17-year veteran of the Blaine-based cosmetics company if environmental sustainability is becoming an important element in corporate brands. 

Kapsner cited Aveda’s mission statement, “To care for the world …,” from memory and said that for any company, the commitment to sustainable product design and development has to be “part of mission … not just a brand. The brand reflects what’s in the product.”

As an example, Kapsner pointed to Aveda’s process for vetting new ingredients before they go into products.  Its “mission alignment ingredient reviews” are intended to ensure they align with the company’s mission. For example, they’ve replaced coconut oil from Asia with babassu oil produced by a certified organic cooperative in Brazil as a base for soaps and cleansers. The company invested in helping the co-op get organic certification, and it now sells its product to other companies as well as to Aveda.

What is Green Chemistry?
From the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, Mass.:

Green Chemistry is a science that aims to reduce or eliminate the use and/or generation of hazardous substances in the design phase of materials development. It requires an inventive and interdisciplinary view of material and product design.

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Green Chemistry follows the principle that it is better to consider waste prevention options during the design and development phase than to dispose or treat waste after a process or material has been developed. For a technology to be considered Green Chemistry, it must accomplish three things:

  • It must be more environmentally benign than existing alternatives.
  • It must be more economically viable than existing alternatives.
  • It must be functionally equivalent to or outperform existing alternatives.

Green Chemistry presents industries with incredible opportunity for growth and competitive advantage. This is because there is currently a significant shortage of green technologies: we estimate that only 10% of current technologies are environmentally benign; another 35% could be made benign relatively easily. The remaining 65% have yet to be invented! Green Chemistry also creates cost savings: when hazardous materials are removed from materials and processes, all hazard-related costs are also removed, such as those associated with handling, transportation, disposal, and compliance.