Oct 22, 2020

The economics of green chemistry: How green chemistry is pro-profit and pro-planet

by John Warner, Distinguished Research Fellow, Exploration and Discovery @JohnWarnerOrg

Green is one of the most abundant colors in the world. At a wavelength of around 550 nanometers, it’s right in the middle of the visible color spectrum, where the human eye is most sensitive to light—a bright, beautiful green. Looking at a lush landscape of trees, grasses, and foliage, it’s hard not to feel a sense of vitality and harmony.

Green’s place in nature has given it a symbolic association with sustainability and conscientiousness toward the environment: “being green,” “green” products, and the “Green New Deal” are all expressions of this sustainability mindset. It also has a second, very different symbolism: green is the color of U.S. cash and is often associated with money and profit.

“Being green” and “making green” are often seen as incompatible. The typical thinking pits profit-over-planet business decisions against costly eco-minded management practices. But that paradigm is fading and becoming something of a false choice. I, like many, see the necessity of both planet and profit. In fact, in my experience, real positive change can only occur at the intersection of economic and environmental priorities. If people don’t make money while making better products that are better for the planet, it simply won’t be sustainable in the long run, and companies doing good things need to stay in business!

Hurting the Planet Equals Hurting Profits

To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, consider the objects we depend on daily: the shoes we wear, the medicines we take, the buildings we work and live in. It takes about one-third of the global GDP to make these things, and most of those industries use chemical- and energy-intensive processes that inefficiently convert limited natural resources into short-term profits, all the while externalizing the true cost of manufacturing.

Take cement as an example. It’s literally a cornerstone of our built world, but it’s also a major contributor to climate change. Its chemical and thermal production processes account for around 8% of global emissions of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Some early efforts to apply green chemistry to the cement sector have reduced carbon footprint by 78%. bioMASON uses microorganisms to grow bio-cement-based construction materials that reduce energy costs and eliminate carbon emissions. Self-healing concrete, engineered with biology or advanced polymers, would provide performance features inaccessible through current methods and save billions each year. Collaborative Aggregates offers products Delta-S and Delta Mist that allow the use of recycled asphalt pavement at lower processing temperature.

Polyester is another culprit. This synthetic plastic material is made from petrochemicals and is found in most clothing garments. Polyester is not biodegradable, and each wash of polyester clothes releases microfibers into our waterways, causing damage to marine life and the aquatic ecosystem. It’s a $100 billion market that releases as much greenhouse gases each year as 185 coal-fired power plants. As consumers increasingly demand greener apparel, companies like Spiber are taking inspiration from spider silk to create fabrics and materials that are not only sustainable but also outperform today’s materials with better tensile strength, elasticity, durability, and softness. Think of a t-shirt that’s softer than silk and stronger than leather, made with biology instead of fossil fuels.

This is the zone where Zymergen operates, and why I chose to come here of all possible opportunities. First, Zymergen is poised to solve the hardest of the 12 pillars of green chemistry: inventing renewable feedstocks. And second, Zymergen’s technology platform —which you’ll be hearing more about soon—is second to none in finding and delivering better performing products to the world. Hyaline , our bio-derived optical film that will end up in your next-gen smartphone, laptop or television, is just the beginning. In a sense, as we work to beat existing materials on performance, sustainability comes along for the ride.

Balancing Both Greens

In his book Balancing Green, Yossi Sheffi argues that the business merits of sustainability are based on the fact that even the most ardent climate-skeptic company executives face natural resource costs, public relations problems, regulatory burdens, and a green consumer segment. Every CEO has to balance whether and how to pursue environmental initiatives, weighing time and resources against shareholder value and many other demands.

Yet today, companies, their consumers, and their investors are more environmentally conscious than ever. We need to nurture this feeling and enable innovative companies to go out into the world and invent new molecules and products with green principles at the core. Equally important, we need to help connect the practices and aspirations of green chemistry to the potential profits of our increasingly green markets.

By learning how nature performs chemical reactions, and then codifying those mechanisms in high-tech biomanufacturing processes, we can more efficiently synthesize molecules, reduce waste, and conserve energy.

Where to Start

How do we develop an integrated green approach? It starts with rethinking our technology and how we train our talent.

Green chemistry is a philosophy and practice that applies to all areas of chemistry and materials, not just a single discipline. We need to take steps now to start applying innovative scientific solutions to real-world environmental problems. We must begin a new chapter in manufacturing, based on technology platforms that couple successful business with environmental protection. Starting there, we can eventually take giant leaps in the fight against environmental harm. We need to plant the seeds of change now to realize bio-inspired products that are green in every sense.

The world’s hunger for sustainable technologies is growing. Sustainability is becoming less of an aspirational philosophy and more of a base set of requirements that consumers, innovators, and investors will come to always expect. Companies that have figured out how to meet these needs from both a technical and financial perspective stand a far better chance at remaining sustainable themselves.

Green symbolizes growth, prosperity, and harmony. Green means go. Let’s go.

Read more about John Warner’s career in green chemistry.