Green chemistry: can these innovations clean up our chemical footprint?

Scientists have announced that chemical pollution has reached the safe limit for human health. That’s the bad news. The good news is that green chemicalists all over the globe are working to solve the problem.

How do synthetic chemicals used in everything, cars and clothes, impact the stability Earth’s environment? An international team of researchers recently set out to answer this question. 

Their findings? They concluded that chemical pollutants have exceeded the safe limits for human consumption and are a threat to the global ecosystems that we rely on. 

“There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050,” said co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

However, a new breed global eco-entrepreneurs are looking for alternatives to toxic products and putting chemicals in their crosshairs. Here are six.

 

1. Dr. Craft, UK 

Green chemistry - solutions to chemical pollution

Dr Richard Blackburn transforms fruit scrap into eco-friendly beauty products. Image by Joanna Crawford

“What excites me most is the potential of using every part of a fruit,” says Richard Blackburn, a professor of sustainable materials at the University of Leeds, UK. Blackburn has recently launched a range of mandarin cleansing products using the leftover peel from China’s favourite fruit. 

“About 10m tonnes of mandarin peel get incinerated every year,” says Blackburn. “Like all citrus, mandarin peels are difficult to compost because they have evolved to be protective, with lots of amazing chemistry that prevents degradation.” 

His green beauty company, Dr. Craft, imports dried mandarin peels from China (dried peels are lighter and easier to transport than fresh ones) and makes a liquid using an energy-efficient extraction process that doesn’t use toxic solvents. 

Solutions to chemical pollution

Blackburn’s work makes use of leftover mandarin peel that would otherwise be incinerated. Joanne Crawford

Blackburn has seen many uses for food scraps in haircare and cosmetics over time. It’s particularly beneficial to use biodegradable ingredients for these sorts of products, he notes, because they get washed directly down the plughole. 

“There’s no end-of- pipe control with products such as shower gel or hair dye – this chemistry goes straight down the drain and ends up in water courses.” 

He’s not one to miss a plant-based opportunity. The skins of dried blackcurrants, which are a byproduct from the production of Ribena can be used in making purple hair toners or brightening serums. Grape seed oil, an antioxidant called resveratrol, are extracted from the skins and grapes of red pinot Noir grapes from English wineries to create bodycare products. Avocado stones make a great exfoliator. 

“In the UK, there’s so much avocado waste from the production of guacamole, soups and sandwiches. It can be ground up to make an exfoliator without needing any additional land to grow these materials,” says Blackburn. 

Green chemistry

You can make purple hair toners from dried blackcurrant skins, a Ribena byproduct. Joanne Crawford

Of his processes, he notes: “There’s some secret know-how but it’s not complicated. It’s very scalable and can be replicated elsewhere.” 

Blackburn says that food waste is a part of a circular economy. However manufacturers should be cautious. 

“You don’t want to unintentionally concentrate toxins, such as cyanide from cherry stones. We’re scientists, running state-of-the-art chemical analyses on these extracts, because you can’t assume nature is safe. Waste offers amazing opportunities if we use it hand in hand with science to make sure we’re doing it right.” 

 

2. Le Qara in Peru: Vegan leather made from lab-grown plants 

Green chemistry

Jacqueline Cruz, co-founder of Le Qara, creates imitation leather in a laboratory. Image: Le Qara

Jacqueline Cruz and Isemar Cruz were shocked to see the effects of leather production on their city of Arequipa in Peru. 

Jacqueline and Isemar, a fashion designer who studied Biotechnology Engineering, have created an innovative biomaterial that feels and looks just like leather. 

Fermentation is the same process that produces yogurt and beer. Le Qara makes a liquid using leftover fruit and other plant-based food waste and feeds this to microbes, which convert it into vegan ‘leather’. The process doesn’t use any hazardous chemicals or heavy metals, such as the chromium that’s present in conventional leather tanning. It also eliminates the need for animals to be killed. 

“We use science, biotechnology and organic waste to create a 100 per cent eco-friendly material – the process is easy, cost-effective, scalable and fast,” enthuses Isemar. 

Le Qara’s ‘leather’ uses no toxins and negates the need to kill animals. Image: Le Qara

She says the technology can replicate any texture, colour or thickness of leather. It is breathable and can be used to make clothes, bags, and accessories. The sisters say that any leftovers can be made into liquid compost, which is a zero waste solution. They also stated that the material is eventually biodegradable. 

With the assistance of International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative CentreThe thinktank is based in Germany and supports more than 150 sustainable chemical startups. Their company has already grown to 10 employees, mostly biotechnology engineers. It is named Le Qara, which means ‘leather’ in Quechua, the indigenous language of the Incas. 

“We believe that our tech has the potential to disrupt the leather industry,” says Isemar. “It’s vital that we use science and biotechnology as our allies in creating a less polluted world.” 

 

3. Clean fuel from dirty nappies: LeafyLife Kenya 

LeafyLife’s team tackled the daunting task of making used nappies into new products. Image: LeafLife

“Disposable diapers are everywhere in Kenya, and we just had to find a use for this waste,” explains LeafyLifeMelvin Kizito, co-founder, began cleaning and seperating nappies by hand in 2019 with his friend Melvin. “It was gross, but we could see the potential,” he says. 

Disposable nappies are usually disposed of in a landfill or used to heat process them. But Kizito is one of three Nairobi- based chemists using green chemistry to process dirty disposable nappies without the need for heat – and transform them into an affordable fuel gel. 

“Our benign chemical solution cleans old diapers using 40 per cent less water than other diaper recycling technologies, while reducing energy consumption by 30 per cent,” he says. Kizito explained that the project can be economically feasible because of its water- and energy-savings. 

We just had to find a way to use disposable diapers, which are all over Kenya.

LeafyLife, his company, is currently working on multiple solutions. “We’re creating a new functional waste management system for nappies, and using the plastic components of nappies to make construction materials such as flooring, roofing and tabletops, while filling tins with ‘clean’ fuel gel that can be used for cooking or heating,” he says. 

This low-carbon fuel is a good alternative to charcoal or kerosene, which can produce dangerous levels of indoor pollution and sooty vapors. After the process of rubbish collection to gel production is streamlined, Kizito hopes to scale up with his colleagues. “By licencing this sustainable technology to other countries, we can clean up all the nappies in the world,” he says. 

 

4. Packaging that mimics nature: Cellugy, Denmark 

Cellugy cofounders (L–R) Isabel Alvarez Martos, Deby Fapayane and Parun Silombing. Image: Cellugy

“Most responsibility to recycle falls on to consumers – that’s not fair. Manufacturers need to be producing responsibly in the first place,” says Isabel Alvarez- Martos, co-founder of Cellugy. 

The Danish biotech company has developed a plastic-free coating that can be used to strengthen textiles and packaging. These coatings are typically made from petrochemicals. However, multi-layered products have limited recyclability as the components are difficult to separate. 

Enter EcoFlexy. Manufactured from cellulose, this biodegradable coating can be combined with cellulose-based pulp to strengthen paper to make a ‘monomaterial’. It is easy to recycle because it all has the same chemical composition. 

The material is made using bacteria that convert surplus sugar into bio-cellulose, it’s water-based and doesn’t contain any solvents or volatile organic compounds, which can be toxic. EcoFlexy’s carbon footprint is at least 80 per cent lower than that of its fossil-based counterparts, according to the Cellugy team.

By mimicking nature’s processes, green chemistry will unlock so many opportunities for the world

“We consider every step of our material’s lifecycle, and our aim is to enable circularity at the material’s end of life,” says Alvarez-Martos, who is currently seeking a suitable location for Cellugy’s first pilot plant. 

“By mimicking nature’s processes, green chemistry will unlock so many opportunities for the world. We have an incredible chance to rethink our consumption models.” 

 

5. Plastic planks with a purpose: EcoAct Tanzania

Green chemistry

Christian Mwijage is the founder of EcoAct. He handles a wood alternative made from recycled polyethylene. Image: EcoAct

The growing demand for timber in east Africa for furniture and construction contributes to deforestation. However, humidity and termites can often cause irreparable damage to untreated wood. 

Dar es Salaam-based social enterprise EcoAct recycles a dozen types of post-consumer plastic into insect-proof ‘timber’ and building materials that won’t rot. 

“Plastic lumber eliminates the need for treatment with chemicals that are often toxic,” explains EcoAct founder Christian Mwijage. 

 

6. Eco plastic washing: Banyan Nation, India

Green chemistry

Mani Vajipey from Banyan Nation and Raj Madangopal of Banyan Nation are working to close the loop on plastic waste. Image: Banyan Nation

Banyan Nation strips plastic waste of dyes, inks, contaminants and coatings before reforming the waste – everything from old car parts to used shampoo bottles – into tiny granules that can be processed into plastic products, just as virgin plastic pellets would be. 

As CEO Mani Vajipey explains: “By using digital tools that trace waste through the supply chain and help segregate different types of plastic, plus super-clean washing technology, we produce a high-quality recycled resin material that rivals virgin plastic.” 

Anna Turns’ book, Go Toxic Free: Easy and Sustainable Ways to Reduce Chemical Pollution, will be published on 20 January by Michael O’Mara Books

Main image: Le Qara