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Dropping Old Green Baggage

The whole concept of being Green and sustainable still carries a lot of old baggage. But these days, most of that baggage can be left behind.

For instance, there is the “it costs more” baggage. Many people think that construction of a Greener, sustainable, and more environmentally responsible building costs considerably more than conventional construction. That may have been true 20-plus years ago, but any added costs are negligible today.

Then there is the “it does not perform as well” baggage. We have seen this in our own industry, and while this may have been true at one time, now many jansan manufacturers have done an outstanding job developing new Green products that perform as well as if not better than similar conventional products.

More old baggage is the idea that federal regulations and chemical policy reform, such as the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, will cost American jobs. Recently, this idea was disputed as a result of a new study produced by the Political Economic Research Institute (PERI) and commissioned by the BlueGreen Alliance, of which I am a member.

The study, which was released in mid-May 2011, demonstrates that innovation in sustainable chemistry actually presents new opportunities for the chemical industry, including the jansan chemical industry, and can help reverse the job loss that has impacted the entire industry for nearly 20 years.

A Little Green Chemical History

The study—The Economic Benefits of a Green Chemical Industry in the United States: Renewing Manufacturing Jobs While Protecting Health and the Environment—suggests what can evolve if the chemical industry embraces sustainable chemistry. But before reviewing the study, let’s take a look at what has been happening in the industry overall.

Since 1992, the U.S. chemical industry has shed approximately 300,000 jobs—this while actual production has increased by 4 percent per year. Should this current scenario continue for another 20 years, according to the report, the industry will likely lose another 230,000 jobs, amounting to nearly half a million jobs in 40 years.

This is coming at a time when the United States is desperately looking for ways to create jobs. Further, the goal is not just to create jobs but to create quality jobs that pay well and also protect the health of our citizens and the environment, which also address the Green and sustainability challenges of the 21st century.

As an example of how this is possible, the report finds that if 20 percent of the current production of petrochemical-based plastics were to shift to more sustainable biobased plastics, the result would be the addition of 104,000 U.S. jobs.

This would cut in half the expected job loss in the chemical industry in the next 20 years, and it would be accomplished with just a small shift in production in one chemical-related industry. Imagine if more petrochemical products were replaced with Greener and more sustainable alternatives.

Benefits of a Green Chemical Industry

This all sounds terrific and enticing, but my astute readers are likely asking how this is possible. The Economic Benefits of a Green Chemical Industry argues that in the past 20 or more years, the U.S. chemical industry has relied on cost cutting to remain profitable. This is one reason why so many American jobs have been lost.

And shedding jobs is not the only way costs have been curtailed. The amount invested in research and development has been reduced and is now just 1.5 percent of sales, compared to 3.4 percent for the manufacturing sector as a whole. The report finds that, spurred by the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the U.S. chemical industry will become increasingly competitive around the world by:

• Ensuring policies that allow it to access important global markets
• Reducing waste and inefficiencies
• Curtailing future cost pressures that come with being so dependent on nonrenewable fossil fuels
• Meeting the demands of 21st-century consumers for safer products
• Reversing the trend from less investment in research and development to greater investment

Am I a Regulation Supporter?

One of the things I am most impressed and proud of is how our industry has embraced Green and sustainability issues on its own, with little or no government pressure or regulation.  So I have learned, as we all have witnessed, how entire industries can make changes without government intervention.

However, in some cases, some government regulation can be a positive move.  I support policies that support the U.S. chemical industry, help it stay competitive, take advantage of new markets, and produce more environmentally preferable and sustainable products to protect health and the environment.

As James Heintz, Associate Director of PERI, says, “Either we continue with weak and ineffective regulation, continue to produce potentially hazardous chemicals [and allow] manufacturing jobs to disappear…or we encourage innovation, create stability for businesses and investors, and build new markets for safe and sustainable chemicals.”

 

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows jansan companies to measure and report on their sustainability efforts.  He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

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