Chemical Alternatives Assessment is a method, rapidly developing for use by businesses, governments and non-government organizations seeking to substitute chemicals of concern in production processes and final products. Chemical alternatives assessment is defined as a process for identifying, comparing and selecting safer alternatives to chemicals of concern (including those in materials, processes or technologies) on the basis of their hazards, performance, and economic viability. The process is intended to provide guidance for assuring that chemicals of concern are replaced with safer alternatives that are not likely to be later regretted. Conceptually the assessment methods are developed from a set of three foundational pillars and five common principles. Based on a number of emerging alternatives assessment initiatives, in this commentary, we outline a chemical alternatives assessment blueprint structured around three broad activities: Scope, Assessment and Selection, and Implementation. Specific tasks and tools are identified for each of these three activities. While it is recognized that on-going practice will further refine and develop the method and tools, it is important that the structure of the assessment process remain flexible, adaptive and focused on the substitution of chemicals of concern with safer alternatives.
Plastics are considered essential materials in today’s society, but throughout their life cycles they contribute to pollution and depletion of non-renewable natural resources. Bio-based plastics appear to be more environmentally friendly materials than their petroleum-based counterparts when their origin and biodegradability are compared. But which of the bio-based plastics currently on the market or soon to be on the market are preferable from an environmental, health, and safety perspective? This analysis found that none of bio-based plastics currently in commercial use or under development are fully sustainable. Each of the bio-based plastics reviewed utilizes: genetically modified organisms for feedstock manufacture and/or toxic chemicals in the production process or generates these as byproducts, and/or co-polymers from non-renewable resources. When deciding to substitute conventional petroleum-based plastics with bio-based plastics it is important to understand the flow of these materials and their adverse impacts in all parts of their life cycles in order to select a material that is more sustainable.
The chemical policies of the 1970s were limited by the assumptions that lie at their foundation and focused narrowly on only the most hazardous chemicals. The effective management of chemicals requires policies that focus on the entire body of chemicals and the production systems that make them. The future will require comprehensive chemicals policies that work within a systems framework to phase out the most hazardous chemicals, progressively transition away from the remaining chemicals of concern by substituting safer chemicals and technologies, and invest heavily in a new generation of safer and more sustainable chemicals.
Today government agencies employ scientific tests and risk to assess the dangers associated with exposure to chemicals identified by scientific or public concern. Once exposure to a substance is demonstrated to result in unacceptable levels of harmfulness, agencies draft regulations to restrict the use of those substances. This represents a problem-focused approach to chemicals management. It is suggested here that a parallel approach is needed that focuses less on the characterization of problems and more on the development of solutions. Such a solution-focused approach would eagerly accept the large accumulation of scientific understanding as a basis for designing chemicals that are safer, cleaner and more environmentally compatible. Solution-seeking approaches to chemical and material development would involve designing chemicals that are not only of high performance and cost effective, but also safer and more sustainable.