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White House to Define ‘Sustainable Chemistry’ as EU Demands It

April 1, 2022, 8:36 PM

The White House wants help defining “sustainable chemistry” in an effort that industries, investors, and others say could make the fuzzy concept more actionable and useful as European laws increasingly demand sustainable products.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will officially publish on Monday a request for interested parties to offer views on their preferred definition for sustainable chemistry. Comments are due June 3.

The lack of consensus on the term poses difficulties for industries across the U.S., OSTP and individuals working with diverse industries said in interviews and emails prior to the notice being published.

The White House effort comes as the European Commission works to implement its 2020 Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, a core part of the European Green Deal. That strategy is likely to cause tremors within the U.S. chemical industry and related stakeholders, according to Lynn L. Bergeson, managing partner of Bergeson and Campbell PC.

Revamping Laws, Industry Requirements

The EU effort includes amending laws and regulations, funding research, and other actions that promote—and in some cases will require—the design of chemicals, materials, and products that are safer, use more renewable resources, are easier to recycle, generate less waste, and create fewer societal and environmental problems than the substances they can replace.

The European Union has been a leader on sustainability for electronics manufacturers for years, said Patricia Dillon, a senior director at the Global Electronics Council. The organization develops specific criteria—limits on the amount of bromine and chlorine, for example—that can be in parts of electronic goods that it certifies through its Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), a global ecolabel for the IT sector.

Having a White House office coordinate federal agencies and work with the private sector will help create global harmonization that sends stronger signals to the market, Dillon said.

“The stronger the market signals, the stronger the policy signals are and the easier it is for us to build these things into our criteria,” she said.

The electronics council is in the midst of updating the climate change, chemicals, recycling, and corporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria that computers, phones, televisions, and other equipment will have to meet to be on its EPEAT registry.

Apple Inc., Dell Technologies, and Google LLC are just a few of the companies with EPEAT-registered products, which generated more than $2.2 billion of global sales in 2020.

Measuring Progress

The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) pushed Congress to pass the 2021 Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act, as a provision of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed OSTP to define sustainable chemistry. The council includes BASF Corp., Nike Inc., and Walmart.

The law requires the White House office to identify regulatory and other roadblocks to, federal support needed for, and opportunities for federal agencies to encourage the development, and use of sustainable chemical manufacturing processes and products metrics.

Clearer criteria and metrics to define sustainable chemistry would help all parties know when, for example, a company “is moving the right direction and what is what you might call a greenwash,” said GC3 Executive Director Joel A. Tickner.

Critics accuse companies of greenwashing when they assert the company gave a false impression or misleading information about the environmental benefits of its products or manufacturing processes.

It could help if companies could say “here is a pair of blue jeans and it uses a dye that is not a carcinogen,” he said. But the idea goes beyond chemical content, he said.

The manufacturing process that made the jeans or dyes in them “can’t be sustainable if it’s poisoning communities in Louisiana,” he said. “And it can’t harm workers.”

Investors want an authoritative body to more clearly define sustainable chemistry, said Alexandra McPherson, who manages the Investor Environmental Health Network.

The lack of consensus on the term, insufficient information on specific chemicals that are safer and sustainable, and other problems make it hard for investors to know whether a company is making progress, she said.

“Investors want to see progress towards better and safer practices,” McPherson said.

Tickner and McPherson envisioned a clearer definition as emerging through several processes.

“Ideally we’ll have a set of principles/criteria that can be used as a filter,” McPherson said. Then groups like the International Organization for Standardization and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board would translate the principles into actionable performance measures that can be used by companies, investors, procurement officials, and others, she said.

A chemical, apparel, and footwear manufacturer, for example, will need to apply the principles differently than would a retailer, Tickner said.

White House, Other Efforts

OSTP has set up a Joint Subcommittee on Environment, Innovation and Public Health that includes a Sustainable Chemistry Strategy Team with representatives from agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Science and Technology, Department of Energy, Defense Department, Food and Drug Administration, and Small Business Administration.

The committee began inviting perspectives from interested parties last month through a webinar and participation in a GC3 meeting. Over the next few months it will host more webinars and join other meetings, an OSTP official said by email.

And the committee will work with its European counterparts, the official said.

“Implementation and commercialization of sustainable chemistry is a global issue, affecting all parts of the supply chain, and it can only be effectively achieved through global coordination,” the OSTP official said.

Meanwhile, the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and Beyond Benign, a green chemistry educational organization, has established an international Expert Committee on Sustainable Chemistry to focus on what a letter seeking committee members called the “pressing need” for a clear and applicable definition and criteria.

The committee includes representatives from Seventh Generation, Inc., Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M), the LEGO Group, states, international agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

And the Pharmaceutical Roundtable, established by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute, continues to develop an array of tools to reduce hazardous solvents, use enzymes instead of chemicals, cut greenhouse gases, and otherwise help pharmaceutical companies innovate while making products with fewer harmful impacts, said David J.C. Constable, the institute’s science director.

`Unsustainable Production’

These types of efforts are essential, said Constable and Tickner.

“Chemical production is unsustainable,” Tickner said. Despite tremendous progress making more with less, the industry remains one of the most energy intensive sectors contributing to toxicity emissions that “are at planetary boundaries,” he said.

If business practices remain the same, the rare-earth metals and other elements needed to make chemicals along with cars and other equipment will have to be obtained by “going off planet to get them,” said Constable, adding he spoke based on his experience and not for American Chemical Society.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at