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Reflections from Portland and the Importance of Green Chemistry in Dow’s 2025 Sustainability Goals

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At this year’s GC&E conference, I had the chance to interview Shawn Hunter, Global EH&S Product Sustainability Leader for Building and Construction at the Dow Chemical Company. Here, read our discussion about Dow’s sustainability initiatives, successful interdisciplinary efforts, and prospects for the future of chemistry.


Ashley: How is green chemistry involved in what you do at Dow?

Shawn: In my role I am responsible for product stewardship and sustainability for Dow’s Building & Construction (B&C) business group. What that means is integrating sustainability and product stewardship into business strategy, which entails making sure our products are safe for their intended uses and compliant with regulations, as well as coordinating B&C sustainability activities and setting our B&C sustainability goals. Green chemistry fits into that in a big way because we spend a lot of time looking at new materials, new substances, and new ideas.  It’s part of our whole innovation process.

At Dow, we have a 2025 Sustainability Goal around Delivering Breakthrough Innovation. We have a defined stage-gate process for developing new technology, and part of that process includes an emphasis on green chemistry. We want to have an understanding around the EH&S aspects of the substances we are dealing with and of the new products that we are designing. Then, we look at what it takes for that specific new idea or new innovation project to be successful in the market. Green chemistry fits directly into that.

Another 2025 Sustainability Goal related to green chemistry is our Increasing Confidence in Chemical Technology goal. This goal seeks to broaden the conversation on the perceptions of chemical technology, and build stakeholder confidence in the safe use of chemical technology to address our sustainability challenges. Green chemistry is front and center in the work that we are doing on this goal related to value chain outreach, collaboration, and product transparency.

A: Since this year’s conference is themed around “design,” can you speak to how Dow works to design products to be safe throughout the whole life cycle?

S: Our Product Stewardship organization implements Dow’s product commitment to Responsible Care®, which is our commitment to develop products that can be made and used safely throughout the life cycle. It begins with characterizing the risks of our products by first assessing the hazards of the materials that we’re considering using, and proceeds considering the end-use application of the product where we look at the potential for exposure. Here we rely heavily on our Dow toxicologists; we are lucky to have a world-class toxicologist group available to help, sometimes just by walking to the office next door. And they are providing more and more predictive toxicology tools and capabilities so we can incorporate that information even sooner in our innovation process. We make decisions around which chemistries or technologies to pursue based on a number of factors, which include the safety of the materials used in the application.

A good example of the way that we think about this is demonstrated by Dow BLUEDGE™ Polymeric Flame Retardant Technology. Development of this technology was very green chemistry inspired, as the focus was on developing a low-hazard solution to an industry challenge. A number of years ago the polystyrene foam insulation industry was using a flame retardant, HBCD (Hexabromocyclododecane), which has been classified as a PBT (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic) and a Stockholm POP (persistent organic pollutant).

There was a clear need in the market for a replacement for HBCD. We took that as a challenge to ask, “How we can as Dow—with our innovation and chemical and toxicological expertise—come up with a replacement for HBCD in order to fit in this application and be commercially successful?”

Of course if you are replacing a PBT compound, you need to have a non-PBT substance as the replacement. Something that has a really good toxicity profile would be even better. And of course it needs to perform—flame retardants have a critical function in the safety of the end use product. So we started with a huge list of over a hundred compounds and went through a tiered process to find what worked. First we screened out candidates based on a predictive toxicology. Once we got rid of those with red flags we moved to the next tier and started to do testing for things like PBT properties, acute toxicity, or mutagenicity. These are well-defined steps that we use to rule out candidates at an early stage and progress to the next. This tiered approach, which allowed us to optimize the time and effort needed to find the solution, was a smart way of thinking about the innovation process to help us find a successful polymeric solution to the challenge in the market.

A: This being the 10th time that Dow has won the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, how do you think the processes have improved over time and what are the greatest challenges of implementing them?

S: I’m really excited that Dow has reached number ten with the Instinct® nitrogen stabilizer. I was at the award ceremony on Monday before the GC&E Conference, and that was pretty cool to see. When I think of our 2025 Sustainability Goals, we really have set big, bold aspirational goals. We’re talking about things like, how do we help lead a blueprint that allows us to transition to a sustainable society? As a society we are not necessarily at a sustainable place today, but we need to get there in the future. At Dow, we know we have a role to play by helping guide and enable that transition. When you look at the role that green chemistry can play, it’s all about the innovation opportunity.  As we continue to have these aspirational goals, one challenge might be to really comprehend just how significant our work can be toward defining a sustainable tomorrow.  But the opportunity and potential are there, and we have a lot of folks that are really excited about this across the globe, working on new technologies, and I hope that these 10 awards are just the beginning!

A: You mentioned that you work with a number of toxicologists. Do you have interdisciplinary teams of chemists and toxicologists or do your chemists have toxicology training?

S: I think that the issue of how to incorporate the toxicology knowledge with the chemistry knowledge is super important. I really like the idea that Paul Anastas mentioned in his Keynote address about these merging over time. You absolutely need to have both.  I again feel very lucky that at DOW we can pull together these cross-disciplinary teams to solve problems. We’re not turning our chemists into toxicologists, but they’re learning a lot from our tox experts, and are applying that tox knowledge in their own thinking as they design new products. Going back to the polymeric flame retardant example, we pulled together a range of people to help address this challenge, which meant that innovation chemists, process chemists, product chemists, toxicologists, manufacturing guys, commercial guys, and sales and marketing folks were all a part of this huge effort. You certainly cannot bring a green chemistry technology from ideation to implementation by yourself in a lab. Having a collaborative nature and getting external stakeholder feedback helps to guide a solution to success.

A: Does Dow have its own metrics for green chemistry?

S: Dow is a very metrics oriented company - that’s what happens when you have a company of chemists and engineers. If you look at Dow’s 2025 Sustainability Goals, there are a whole lot of metrics within them.  We have seven high-level goals; each of those goals contain additional metrics.

So from the 2025 innovation goal we then have, for example, a metric about delivering an R&D portfolio that has a 6:1 benefit to burden ratio from a life cycle perspective. This helps us strive for new solutions that bring energy and climate change benefits to the market. Improved food packaging, for example, might take a little bit of energy or carbon investment to make, but can save the embedded carbon or energy in the food. You are spending a little CO2, to save a lot of CO2 in the end.  That sort of benefit-to-burden ratio is seen as a life cycle investment.

A: Finally, do you have any thoughts about the conference or your experience so far or any thoughts on where Dow is going to go with green chemistry?

S: The conference this year is outstanding. There are so many important conversations going on in terms of breaking down silos and making sure that the right folks are talking to each other. The point you brought up about our toxicologists talking to our chemists, well I just came from a session where it was really focused on that whole idea.  Some of the talks were on how we make tox-type tools readily available to chemists.These types of conversations are key in advancing green chemistry.

Of course, Anastas’ talk was inspiring as always as we think about the future. What’s also great about this conference is that you have a group of folks who really understand the potential of chemistry to help us get to that sustainable place. If we want to get to that world where we have 8-10 billion people that are living well globally and living within the limits of the planet, chemistry - green chemistry - is going to be a key part of that transition.

There are a lot of great ideas floating around. Many of them tie into the notion of the sustainability goals at Dow and the blueprint that we need to transition to a sustainable society.  It’s really exciting to see all of these innovations coming down the road, and I’m looking forward to what the next 25 years of green chemistry will bring.

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