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Safer Chemistry Impact Fund Launches to Accelerate Replacement of Hazardous Chemicals

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By Cecilia Smith, Administrative Assistant, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

A new initiative that aims to systematically eliminate hazardous chemicals used in industry and replace them with verified, safer alternatives at scale was launched this February. With the help of their first grant recipient, ChemForward, the Safer Chemistry Impact Fund will first look to address the lack of infrastructure for organizing chemical hazard data by creating a systemic approach for managing toxicology data and ranking individual chemicals’ safety levels.

By Cecilia Smith, Administrative Assistant, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

A new initiative that aims to systematically eliminate hazardous chemicals used in industry and replace them with verified, safer alternatives at scale was launched this February. With the help of their first grant recipient, ChemForward, the Safer Chemistry Impact Fund will first look to address the lack of infrastructure for organizing chemical hazard data by creating a systemic approach for managing toxicology data and ranking individual chemicals’ safety levels. Read about how the new fund represents not only a groundbreaking investment in safer chemistry adoption, but also a breakthrough for the advancement of green and sustainable chemistry goals.

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The Safer Chemistry Impact Fund, a new initiative established with seed investments from Google and Apple, launched in February with the goal of systematically eliminating hazardous chemicals and replacing them with verified safer alternatives at scale. The fund aims to raise $15 million over the next five years and is fiscally sponsored by the Windward Fund, an environmentalist non-profit organization.

At the core of the Safer Chemistry Impact Fund’s goals is the idea that the transition away from hazardous chemicals will be a disruptive, transformative change across industries and will necessitate science-based and data-driven solutions. Given that the earth has already surpassed the planetary boundary for environmental pollutants and plastics, the fund sees the urgency of mitigating the use of harmful chemicals, which disproportionately harm workers, women, people of color, and low-income communities. With an emphasis on systems thinking and collaboration across the supply chain, the new fund represents not only a groundbreaking investment in safer chemistry adoption, but also a breakthrough for the advancement of green and sustainable chemistry goals.

One of the key challenges the fund strives to address is the lack of infrastructure for organizing data regarding the toxicity of the thousands of chemicals used in industry. “There have been people working on safer, green chemistry for 20 years, but it can be pretty elusive to measure your progress toward that goal,” says Stacy Glass, Co-founder and Executive Director of ChemForward, a nonprofit that houses a repository of chemical hazard data and received the first grant from the fund. By developing a systemic approach for managing toxicology data and ranking individual chemicals’ safety levels, ChemForward has been able to identify harmful chemicals being used in multiple sectors—including beauty and personal care, electronics, and packaging—and create a roadmap for moving towards safer alternatives.

The principles of green chemistry play a pivotal role in the approach of ChemForward and the Safer Chemistry Impact Fund. “Of the 12 principles of green chemistry, we are laser focused on the hazard piece because it has traditionally been an expensive and consistent problem,” says Glass. “Our approach is safe and sustainable. We want chemicals to first pass the hazard assessment, and then we look at how they can be optimized for other green chemistry or sustainability principles.”

Using capital from the Impact Fund, ChemForward hopes to scale up their chemical assessment process, expanding into other sectors and working with companies across the supply chain. This kind of life cycle based approach is another foundational principle of green chemistry, and it is something that Bill Walsh, Director of the Safer Chemistry Impact Fund, sees as a growing priority: “There really is a convergence of interest among very diverse stakeholders on getting comprehensive, consistent, and verified data about these chemicals.”

Walsh also points to the fund’s work as a means for guiding the future of green chemistry research. In instances where there are no safer chemical alternatives in the existing inventory, Walsh states, “we’ll call for innovation in foundational green chemistry research and prioritize areas where we really have to reinvent. And that can help both the practical search for the green chemistry industry today and the evolution of green chemistry as a profession.”

When thinking about the future of green chemistry and its increasingly critical role in addressing climate change, environmental health and safety, and sustainability, it’s also important to consider the obstacles that lie ahead. “Identifying that there are alternatives is only half the challenge,” says Joel Tickner, founder and Executive Director of Change Chemistry, a multi-stakeholder collaborative that drives the commercial adoption of green chemistry. Tickner points to higher costs and scalability issues as some of the difficulties that arise with certain alternatives; therefore, “the information to identify safer options needs to be combined with policies, incentives, investments, and value chain collaboration to move them to commercialization and scale.” Though a large undertaking, the Safer Chemistry Impact Fund hopes to use their resources to accelerate this process, underscoring the urgency at which progress needs to be made to ensure human and planetary health.