January Theme: GREEN CHEMISTRY

by Katrin Scholz-Barth, President, SustainableQATAR

Happy New Year! As we begin the new year full of good intentions, January’s monthly theme of Green Chemistry starts the year on a high note and motivation for value creation.

The challenges for implementing sustainability in Qatar on all levels of society, both personally and professionally are vast, despite everyone saying the right things. The general positive attitude toward sustainability is a first win. What’s missing, however, is a deeper understanding of what it all means in our daily lives beyond recycling, and there’s a big gap. In Qatar, sustainability is still mostly a synonym for and equal to health, safety, and environment – a regulatory approach. Recycling is where people’s understanding of sustainability starts and ends, which is merely reducing impact at the end of the value chain. 

SustainableQATAR’s aim is to go much deeper – to draw connections between areas and products in our personal and professional lives, to learn how it’s all connected, and how it impacts everything from our health to the health of our environment, so that we can recognize and realize value creation. Value creation is business language for economic benefit. As most actions are economically motivated, we want to outline the economic benefits of strategic sustainability to find solutions at the source of the problem and nudge us further ahead. 

Many people neglect or ignore sustainability and therefore miss opportunities for value creation. However, when we reframe the questions and reassess our current pressing global issues from the perspective of our personal health and wellbeing, we recognize that our daily actions matter – a lot. That is power and that is also a long-term investment into our happy and healthy personal and environmental future. 

With the December monthly theme on Healthy Homes and the last December weekly challenge on Healthy Kids’ Rooms we finished on a somewhat sober note. As we recall “287 chemicals are found in babies before they are even born, and 82,000 chemicals are allowed on the market without safety testing.” Ken Cook, President Environmental Working Group (EWG).

So, for January’s monthly theme of Green Chemistry, we want to start the year on a high note and motivation for value creation. We will tackle the topic of green chemistry as an economic alternative to boost our health and phase out the many unsafe and toxic chemicals in consumer products. By showcasing alternative products, we wish to open minds for opportunities to look for, create, demand, and purchase safe products that will also ensure a brighter future for us all collectively. 

The discussions will circle back to our homes, because that’s where our personal control and purchasing power is. We will address in greater detail pest control, household cleaners, air fresheners, cosmetics, refrigerants, and other products with high potential for hidden toxic chemicals in electronics, textiles, construction materials and food and packaging products. This will further our understanding and equip us with knowledge to find safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals in our daily choices and purchasing decisions. It will also empower us to take climate actions and to reduce our carbon footprint.

At SustainableQATAR, we consider it our responsibility to raise awareness so people can protect themselves and also speak up for other people whose voices may not be loud enough. For the inventors and entrepreneurs among us, this may make our heads brim with possible new business ideas to make and introduce safe-made consumer products in Qatar.

Recently, the movie Dark Waters about drinking-water contamination by the DuPont company and the realization by one environmental lawyer that no government protects people but “we do” is a captivating feature movie based on a true story like the 2000 feature film Erin Brockovitch.

The subject of Dark Waters is a class of hazardous chemicals known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” used in cookware, clothing, and even food packaging. PFAS are toxic, contaminate water and people, and have been linked to serious health effects, like hormone disruption and cancer. 

In our daily activities there are many opportunities for understanding the connection between the products we use without even thinking and our health! How do we avoid these chemicals? As consumers and smart shoppers we can address sustainability at the source with materials, consumer choices. We can act and nudge policy makers and be advocates for ourselves.

Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by Nature, by Janine Benyus is an easily accessible book about earth’s 3.8 Billion years of experimenting with how to make things and get rid of things without the need for petroleum-based or worse toxic chemicals. Biomimicry – mimicking nature – is a relatively new field of applied biology and innovation. Many industries have benefitted, including engineering, building and construction, energy, and medicine, as well as national security with “bulletproof vests more indestructible than Kevlar® that were inspired by spider silk.”

Taking this nature-based approach into the field of chemistry – Green Chemistry -is a fascinating new field of study and research. We reached out to Professor James Clark of University of York.

Professor Clark established the leading scientific journal, Green Chemistry, and the world’s largest private membership network, the Green Chemistry Network. He has a strong interest in industrial symbiosis and waste utilization – making chemicals, fuels and materials from chemical, food and other wastes – solving both the problems of increasing waste and diminishing resources at the source.

Value creation with green chemistry is all about developing new green value chains that start with low-value waste products and, through efficient and low environmental impact processing, end up with safe chemical products that ideally fit with the circular economy, thereby helping with the transition to a low-carbon and ultimately regenerative economy. The most exciting part is that sustainability and green chemistry will only gain in importance, especially leading up to the first-ever carbon neutral FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

A few exciting and transformative industry breakthrough innovations that fit into the circular economy and share green chemistry at their foundation, are Apple’s purchase of the first-ever carbon-free aluminum from Alcoa-Rio Tinto Venture and the Geyser water-based high performance batteries. 

“The carbon-free move is a response to consumer, activist and investor demand that miners and manufacturers show they are working to lessen their impact on climate change. “For more than 130 years, aluminum – a material common to so many products consumers use daily – has been produced the same way. That’s about to change,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said in a statement.”

Geyser Batteries is a Finnish cleantech startup that has developed water-based high-performance batteries. The company has used its electrochemical technology to produce sustainable batteries, a new energy storage mechanism, without any elements of Lithium-ion technology, to build high-performance, safe, and sustainable electrification solutions for the mobility sector, as well as to design grid-scale energy storage systems with long service life and ultra-low carbon footprint.

Just like with general health or healthy food – a few basics of understanding can make all the difference in our lives and well-being. It’s not too complicated even though the issues seem quite complex. This means that everyone can do things differently with a bit of effort. 

A few key points for consumers to easily do and incorporate into daily actions by Prof. Clark: 

  • Read the labels of all household products: check if all containing chemicals are identified. Be suspicious if they don’t. 
  • Don’t blindly trust marketing claims (eg “non-toxic” or “90% bio-based”) especially when chemical ingredients don’t support these claims. 
  • Choose products with the shortest ingredient list and ingredients you can pronounce. Complexity is the enemy of sustainability and the circular economy.
  •  Avoid products with many different components especially when the roles of most of them is unknown or unclear. 
  • Use the SIN list from chemsec.org to help identify chemicals to avoid.
  • Look for packaging made from recycled materials.
  • Consider bringing reusable containers to fill in the store.
  • Advocate for household, cleaning, and personal care products (cosmetics, pharmaceuticals) to be non-toxic and biodegradable as well as not persistent in the environment.
  • Demand supermarkets, supplier, and manufacturers to put in place the logistics to collect and recycle! Just a marketing or PR campaign saying something is recyclable is not enough!
  • Let’s keep our footprint small! Remember that for some household products like shower gels, shampoos, and many cleaners, the biggest environmental footprint (possibly 90%) will be us using them resulting in energy use for water, heat, and sewage treatment.
  • While only reducing the impact and not providing a solution at the source, we need to do everything we can to assist recycling – to ultimately support a circular economy by keeping waste streams sorted properly, avoiding mixed or contaminated plastics that make recycling very difficult.

Stay tuned for the next four weeks as we explore opportunities to further understand the heavy toxic chemical load in our daily lives, to become aware of and to protect our personal and environmental well-being by finding alternatives. 

In Challenge #46 we will examine our Household Cleaners and share some insights into alternatives that work. 

Challenges #47 and #48 are dedicated to our Cosmetics and refrigerants – what to look out for and how to work climate actions into our daily decisions in the context of green chemistry. 

With our blogs and weekly challenges, we inspire to mobilize the public and aspire to educate individuals on our powers as consumers to exercise our purchasing power to demand clean products, packaging, materials that cut out the toxins for a vast number of health benefits.  

By eliminating toxic chemicals from our lives we also reduce our carbon footprint through personal choices and actions and we will explain how, and why it matters, addressing SDGs #3 Good Health and Wellbeing; #6 Clean Water and Sanitation; #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth; #9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; #12 Responsible Consumption and Production and #13 Climate Action

Resources: 

January Green Chemistry Challenges

Challenge #45 – Pest Control

Challenge #46 – Household Cleaners 

Challenge #47 – Packaging & Cosmetics

Challenge #48 – Refrigerants