Unlearning what we know about chemistry

I watched the live-streamed portion of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s annual summit as balm against the sting of not being able to attend in person. First of all it didn’t work out – I’m still quite disappointed that I couldn’t attend.

I will say, however, that the hour-long session, “Design Turns Ambition Into Action”, had an excellent list of speakers. For anyone who missed the livestream, I encourage you to give it a view.

When you live and breathe circularity, it can often be difficult to be seduced by content. Even in such a new field, many ideas can feel incremental, derivative, and chip away at the edges of the problem. The general lack of “wow” ideas often does, but shouldn’t surprise us. After all, most people working on circular economy innovations have been part of the existing linear economy all their lives. It can be difficult to ignore the current reality and think about a better future. Therein lies the main conclusion I had after watching the EMF Summit 22 live stream:

We must unlearn much of what we have internalized over the past century to make the progress we need.

There are several ways this is true, but I’ll focus on just one here. We have to start by unlearning what we know about chemistry. I’m clearly a bit biased here as a chemist myself, but don’t worry: the person I’m going to refer to is also a chemist. Ilham Kadri, CEO of Solvay, explained at the summit that chemistry is the “mother of all industries”. Indeed, without chemistry, we would 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 by chemistry. What does it mean to unlearn what we have learned about chemistry so far? I will try to answer this question from several angles:

Number 1: The Chemist

One of the many things I’ve learned since graduating as a laboratory chemist is that you can’t expect chemists to design safe chemicals if you don’t teach them how. As a “basic science”, chemistry is taught the same way in most places and from the same old books. This part of the agreement is, in my opinion, OK. The basics of chemistry have not changed and probably will not change.

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

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

As chemists, we know that all of these chemical reactions are theoretically reversible. Even knowing this, we usually don’t envision a real desire to reverse a reaction in the future. It’s tricky, but I’ll argue here that chemists need to think more circularly if the economy is to operate 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 of polymeric substances, that can be easily reversed to create new materials.

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

Number 2: The Product Designer

If chemists are to learn to design safer chemicals, product designers and engineers must learn to assess product safety and circularity. Regardless of the sector, product development processes must integrate considerations relating to human and environmental health, economy of atoms, energy efficiency and the circularity of products and materials. Too often this is not done or is done without real control over the final product. Having spent a lot of time as a practitioner of corporate sustainability and having seen the difference between companies with and without sustainability built into the product development process, I can say with confidence that it is inexcusable to develop products without checks and balances in place today.

Number 3: The end user

Product users need to develop both a healthy skepticism of claims and a willingness to ask the tough questions of manufacturers and retailers. The age-old adage (at least since I’ve been in this space) is that B2C companies don’t experience as much pressure from customers to make sustainable choices as B2B companies. In some ways, that’s true. Large corporate customers tend to have their own sustainability goals that can be achieved at least in part through sustainable procurement. They also have a purchasing power that few individuals have.

We need to learn from past mistakes, forget old ways and move on.

But the individual voices of consumers can be just as strong as those of large corporations and institutional buyers if they actually use those voices and educate themselves on what questions to ask. In other words, don’t ask if a product is “chemical-free”, “non-toxic” or just “sustainable”. These questions are largely meaningless. Instead, ask what certifications a product has to ensure the safety of users and the environment, whether the product contains chemicals on regulatory or NGO lists, or even for detailed ingredient information with hazard data. . While you may not always get exactly what you asked for, rest assured that these pointed questions get the attention of companies.

My takeaways

There’s a lot that can (and should) be done to move us towards a more circular economy, and most of us have a lot to learn about how to get there. We need to learn from past mistakes, forget old ways and move on. I believe this is especially true in the field of chemistry. To do this, however, we need to rethink the chemistry on the bench, at the materials manufacturer, and at the product manufacturer. Additionally, people at all of these levels (and the consumer space) need to be less afraid to ask tough questions.

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