Can big data, AI and chemical footprinting help the renewable energy sector avoid a toxic waste legacy?

December 1, 2020 by  
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Can big data, AI and chemical footprinting help the renewable energy sector avoid a toxic waste legacy? Krishna Rajan Tue, 12/01/2020 – 01:00 The launch of the digital economy has brought with it an expansion of disruptive technologies such as predictive analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics that are readily being used to transform the marketplace. But can we also use these breakthrough technologies to accelerate the development of safer, more sustainable materials for the renewable energy sector?  Starting with one of the fastest-growing clean energy sectors, solar technology, this is the fundamental question that a unique collaboratory is asking itself. Three years ago, the Department of Materials Design and Innovation at the University at Buffalo, Clean Production Action (CPA) and Niagara Share created the Collaboratory for a Regenerative Economy (CoRE). CoRE recognizes the critical societal importance of scaling clean energy technologies such as solar to address the climate crisis. But to do this sustainably, we need to collectively scale solutions to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and scarce, unrecyclable materials that impede circular economies.  Issues such as toxicity and environmental impact are often an afterthought in the design phase, which is predominantly focused on improving the technical functions and efficiencies of materials. With more than 78 million tons of contaminated waste related to solar panels expected to hit landfills by 2050, this trend needs to be reversed. To improve the life-cycle footprint of solar panels, big data tools can help manufacturers embed human health and environmental criteria into the front end of the design phase of materials and products. We need to collectively scale solutions to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and scarce, unrecyclable materials that impede circular economies. In a recently released report, “Elements of Change: Moving forward together towards a cleaner safer future,” CoRE outlines strategies for renewable energy companies to: Reduce chemical footprints of products, supply chains and manufacturing; Apply machine learning to design techniques for lead-free panels; and  Use big data tools to rapidly characterize chemicals and identify safer solvents. Safely meet demand for renewable energy technologies Solar energy, along with other clean energy technologies, depends on hazardous chemicals and novel materials to reduce costs and optimize efficiencies. Some of these chemistries are unsafe for the environment and human health. For example, solar energy technologies rely on toxic materials such as lead in solar cells and hydrofluoric acid used in manufacturing processes. This is especially harmful for workers exposed to hazardous chemicals throughout the life cycle of renewable energy technologies from production to disposal. The solar energy sector is not alone with this major challenge. More than 2,780,000 workers die globally annually from unsafe and unhealthy work conditions, according to the International Labor Organization. The United Nations Human Rights Commission estimated that a worker dies at least every 30 seconds from exposure to toxic industrial chemicals, pesticides, dust, radiation and other hazardous substances.  CPA’s work with the electronics sector to driver safer chemical is applicable to the solar sector and all clean energy technologies. For example, HP, Inc is a leader in its work to reduce its chemical footprint, documented by its participation in the annual Chemical Footprint Survey. This survey measures a company’s chemical footprint against best practices. It is modeled on the Carbon Disclosure Project, and is open and transparent, providing solar companies with a roadmap to safer chemical use. Apple uses CPA’s GreenScreen to provide guidance to its suppliers on safer substitution of hazardous chemicals used as cleaners and degreasers in its supply chain. GreenScreen is a leading hazard assessment tool that benchmarks chemicals based on performance across 18 human health and environmental end points. Solar companies can use this tool to identify safer solutions to problematic materials such as hydrofluoric acid.  These leading electronic companies even have teamed up with nonprofits such as CPA and academics to form the Clean Electronic Production Network (CEPN), which aims to eliminate exposure to toxic substances in the workplace. This is a massive undertaking related to the manufacturing of computers, electronics and other information technologies. Solar manufacturers work off a similar manufacturing platform that stands to benefit from the tools and resources that CEPN is creating to do full chemical inventories and safer substitution with suppliers. Solar companies today can adapt CEPN tools and strategies, proven effective by electronic companies, and make meaningful progress towards safer chemical use. But there remains a major challenge for all these companies, notably solar — the time it takes to discover new materials relative to their growth projections. This is where CoRE believes AI, machine learning and predictive analytics can play a role in accelerating the process of material discovery to the benefit of human health and the environment as well as optimized technical performance.  Using big data and AI to accelerate material discovery  The development of high-performance materials typically takes decades, sometimes up to 30 years to commercialize a new material. Big data tools can organize the large volumes of disaggregated information companies need to improve the technical, environmental and social performance of materials. Solar companies that participate annually in the CPA Chemical Footprint Survey to measure their chemical footprint and track their performance against best practices, can leverage these tools to map patterns and impacts necessary for decisionmaking and prioritization. For example, the use of lead in solar panels is problematic in the production and disposal of these products. Electronics companies have shown it is possible to design lead-free electronic products, but solar companies are still very dependent on lead-based technologies. This is true even with the next generation of solar panels — for example, perovskite-based solar panels show the potential to increase the efficiency of panels, but their chemistry is dependent on lead. Rational design is a process that bypasses trial-and-error approaches and creates new materials based on a predictive understanding of the fundamental science governing materials performance. CoRE has demonstrated that “data fingerprints” can provide a powerful representation of the characteristics of perovskite crystal chemistry. This is key to overcoming the barriers to safer substitution for toxic elements such as lead.  Data-driven screening tools and machine learning methods can help navigate the complexity of information associated with new and emerging chemicals used in the manufacture of solar devices. This includes harnessing advanced materials modeling and informatics techniques to identify pathways for the rational design of new materials chemistries for renewable technologies (solar energy) that minimize adverse environmental and human health impacts without compromising functionality. Rational design is a process that bypasses trial-and-error approaches and creates new materials based on a predictive understanding of the fundamental science governing materials performance. Searching for the proper chemistry of materials that meet multiple functionality metrics of minimal hazard and enhanced engineering performance requires us to explore a chemical search space that is prohibitively too large to explore and make critical discoveries within a reasonable time frame using traditional methods. CoRE seeks to address this challenge by applying materials informatics and physics-based modeling to fill the gaps in scientific knowledge, which then guides accelerated materials discovery and design for solar technologies. At CoRE, our goal is to gain a greater understanding of how atomic-scale changes in chemistry have a multiscale influence on materials manufacturing, performance and sustainability of solar cells.  The European Commission recently announced a new chemical strategy for its Green New Deal that promises a non-toxic future for its citizens and a plan for zero pollution. The plan includes new investments for green and safer material innovation. This policy will stimulate demand for greener, safer products; putting pressure on renewable energy companies to think more holistically about their lifecycle impacts. By building on best practices established widely in the electronics sector and leveraging the untapped benefits of AI and big data, solar companies can lead the way for the renewable energy sector in transforming their chemical footprints and accelerating the adoption of safer materials.   Pull Quote We need to collectively scale solutions to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and scarce, unrecyclable materials that impede circular economies. Rational design is a process that bypasses trial-and-error approaches and creates new materials based on a predictive understanding of the fundamental science governing materials performance. Contributors Mark Rossi Chitra Rajan Alexandra McPherson Topics Chemicals & Toxics Energy & Climate Solar Consumer Electronics Technology Collective Insight The Right Chemistry Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off Shutterstock Sondem Close Authorship

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Can big data, AI and chemical footprinting help the renewable energy sector avoid a toxic waste legacy?

Chemical footprinting comes of age

July 13, 2020 by  
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Chemical footprinting comes of age Meg Wilcox Mon, 07/13/2020 – 02:00 When the Chemical Footprint Project launched in December 2014, it aspired to become the next carbon footprint or the next widely used tool for measuring company performance on a critical sustainability concern — toxic chemical use in the manufacturing of products.  It’s made steady progress since then, with 31 companies, including Levi Strauss, Walmart and HP Inc., using the Chemical Footprint Project’s annual survey to inventory and report on their hazardous chemical use, as well as their progress towards safer alternatives.  Last month, however, the initiative scored a big win that just might bring it closer to reaching its lofty goal. Nearly 45 percent of TJX Companies’ shareholders voted in favor of a resolution calling on the discount retailer to report on its plans to reduce its chemical footprint (the “chemicals of concern” used to manufacture the products it sells in its stores).   “To get that kind of vote on this ask, that sends a message,” said Cherie Peele, program manager at the Chemical Footprint Project.  Investors, it seems, want more transparency from companies about how they are moving toward safer chemicals, to manage their risks and respond to consumer preferences. Socially responsible investors are further concerned about the environmental justice implications of the science linking hazardous chemical exposure to chronic diseases such as diabetes because communities of color bear the brunt of chemical production. This investor interest just may spur more companies to take up chemical footprinting, and particularly as they see their high-performing peers reap the rewards of consumer trust in their brands. The chemical footprint provides a way to not just say that we care about safer chemicals and green chemistry, but demonstrate it by measuring the process towards safer chemicals. The TJX vote was “a good demonstration that the E in ESG is not just about climate or water, it includes chemicals. It’s something that I hope companies take to heart,” said Boma Brown-West, senior manager of consumer health at EDF+Business.  The strong vote surprised the investors who filed the proposal, Trillium Asset Management LLC and First Affirmative Financial Network , because it was the first time such a resolution had been brought to a vote. Ordinarily, such first-time shareholder resolutions receive single-digit votes. That fact that it got over 40 percent is “an indication that some major institutional money managers voted in favor,” said Holly Testa, director of shareholder engagement at First Affirmative Financial Network. “It’s an indication that there’s widespread investor interest in this issue. It’s a mainstream concern.” “I think it’s going to set a precedent for future work on [chemical footprinting],” said Susan Baker, vice president of Trillium Asset Management. “I have to give credit to the leaders out there that have policies and are really listening to the changes in the marketplace. They’re gaining competitive advantage.” Roger McFadden, president of McFadden and Associates and former senior scientist at Staples for 10 years, said he sees corporate interest in chemical footprinting rising. Whereas in the past, “they were afraid their footprint wouldn’t be all that good,” or they feared they might not stack up well against their direct competitors, now, he says, “I think that’s the exact reason chemical footprinting is catching on. Enough companies are doing it that their competitors are beginning to pay attention to it.”  Brand value and competitive advantage A core advantage for companies participating in the chemical footprint survey “boils down to building trust, protecting your brand,” said McFadden, pointing to recent examples where companies have taken big economic and reputational hits when the health impacts of toxic ingredients in their products came to light — namely, the weed killer Roundup and baby powder.   “The chemical footprint provides a way to not just say that we care about safer chemicals and green chemistry, but demonstrate it by measuring the process towards safer chemicals,” he said.  Trillium filed the shareholder resolution with TJX in part because it saw the discount retailer lagging behind its peers. “There wasn’t evidence that they were taking a proactive approach in keeping abreast of regulatory changes and consumer preferences,” Baker told GreenBiz. “They really need to think about responsible sourcing, and how it impacts customer trust,” she added, pointing to retailers measuring their chemical footprints and moving toward safer alternatives. “Look at Target. They have all these private label brands that are attracting people into their stores. Their customers trust their brands.” TJX did not respond to GreenBiz’s request for comment; however, in its 2020 Proxy Statement it noted, “The company is already taking steps to better understand and appropriately address how the company manages its chemical footprint. … Developing and implementing a comprehensive chemical policy is especially complex in light of the company’s off-price business model,” which involves buying from a vast universe of vendors.  In response, Baker and Testa point to Dollar Tree, which has a similar off-price business model yet nevertheless participated in the 2019 Chemical Footprint Survey and has committed to eliminating 17 hazardous chemicals from products in its stores. COVID-19 spurs environmental justice concerns As evidence mounts that chemical exposure has effects on chronic disease, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and that individuals with those health conditions are more vulnerable to the coronavirus — socially responsible investors are wanting more disclosure and action from companies on chemical risks, Testa told GreenBiz. “The connections are becoming clearer…” she said, and “that has staggering economic and societal consequences.”  Research documents that the chemical plants that produce the chemicals used in everyday products are often sited in communities of color, in areas some call sacrifice zones . “If the brands and retailers can start a program of reducing these chemicals, it’s going to go upstream and reduce the impacts of air and water pollution to the most vulnerable in this country,” Baker said. The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia has been linking environmental justice and chemical risk concerns in its work with retailers such as Dollar Tree and oil and gas companies with stores or facilities in communities of color. “We are tying the pandemic, climate change, environmental justice and human rights. They’re very much linked to one another,” said Sister Nora Nash. Even just beginning the process is a leadership role. We’d like to think that anybody who’s participating, we see them in a leadership role. For companies such as Dollar Tree and TJX, it “hits both sides,” Testa added. Much of the companies’ products are made in countries with low standards for protecting workers from chemical exposure, and their consumer bases also have a high representation of lower income and minority communities purchasing their products. Such products may contain chemicals of high concern if the company is not assessing its chemical footprint.  The next carbon footprint? With just 31 companies reporting their chemical footprints, the initiative has a way to go before it becomes as widespread as the carbon footprint. Peele says that “we’re still in the process of socializing” the survey. The Chemical Footprint Project survey is also evolving every year as it works with companies on the challenges of collecting and reporting information that comes from many places within a company.  McFadden agrees that it takes time for a reporting scheme to become mainstream, noting that the carbon footprint had slow uptake initially because companies were unsure about it. And he notes that carbon is just one chemical, whereas chemical footprinting is thousands of chemicals.  Still he sees potential for the chemical footprint to become just as mainstream as the carbon footprint, particularly once companies get over the fear factor of “What am I measuring?” and “What if my grade makes us look bad?” To that Peele responds, “Even just beginning the process is a leadership role. We’d like to think that anybody who’s participating, we see them in a leadership role.” Ultimately, if investors don’t spur more companies to report their chemical footprint, consumers just might do the job.  “The next generation, my kids and grandkids, they’re not going to accept the things … that my generation accepted,” McFadden said. “They’re going to expect much more transparency and disclosure. Companies are going to have to recognize that. If they push back against that, they’re going to push back against their customers.”  Pull Quote The chemical footprint provides a way to not just say that we care about safer chemicals and green chemistry, but demonstrate it by measuring the process towards safer chemicals. Even just beginning the process is a leadership role. We’d like to think that anybody who’s participating, we see them in a leadership role. Topics Chemicals & Toxics Investing Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) On Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off

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Chemical footprinting comes of age

Measuring progress to SDGs with a chemicals management survey

September 19, 2018 by  
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We worry about our carbon footprints. What about our chemical footprints?

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Measuring progress to SDGs with a chemicals management survey

Chemical footprinting strides to become mainstream with Walmart

August 11, 2017 by  
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Big companies are breaking new ground by measuring and reporting their chemical footprints. What steps can your business take?

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Chemical footprinting strides to become mainstream with Walmart

What the new Chemical Safety law means for business

June 22, 2016 by  
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The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law Wednesday, replacing the Toxic Substances Control Act which left Americans exposed to many toxic chemicals.

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What the new Chemical Safety law means for business

What the new Chemical Safety law means for business

June 22, 2016 by  
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The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law Wednesday, replacing the Toxic Substances Control Act which left Americans exposed to many toxic chemicals.

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What the new Chemical Safety law means for business

Rethinking systems for the circular economy

March 4, 2016 by  
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Dow Chemical Corporate Vice President for EH&S and Chief Sustainability Officer Neil Hawkins and Polyethylene and Packaging Division President Diego Donoso discuss Dow’s 2025 goal to advance the circular economy by innovating and collaborating to design waste into new products and services at GreenBiz 16 in Phoenix.

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Rethinking systems for the circular economy

Could BPA be linked to Autism Spectrum Disorder?

March 7, 2015 by  
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BPA has already been identified as a potential health risk as an endocrine disruptor, prompting Canada to ban the chemical altogether, but a new study reveals yet another potential risk when ingesting the chemical. Published in the journal Autism Research , the study shows a link between autism and BPA exposure. Read on for more details. READ MORE >  Permalink | Add to del.icio.us | digg Post tags: Austism , Autism and BPA , autism links , Autism research , autism studies , BPA and health , BPA health risks , BPA risks , ingesting BPA , Inhabitots

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Could BPA be linked to Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Pregnant Women Shouldn’t Use Antibiotics Because of Risk to Fetus, Study Shows

August 24, 2014 by  
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As if there weren’t reason enough  to avoid triclosan and triclocarban already, a new report indicates that the common antibiotics may pose a threat to pregnant women and their fetuses. Researchers found traces of triclosan in umbilical cord blood of mothers who had triclosan in their urine, meaning that expectant mothers who use antibiotic products may be transferring the chemical to their children. What makes that particularly concerning is that other studies have shown that antibacterials can lead to developmental and reproductive problems. Read More >  Image via Shutterstock Permalink | Add to del.icio.us | digg Post tags: fetus antibiotics , fetus health , pregnancy , pregnancy antibiotics , pregnancy health , pregnancy health antibiotics , pregnancy science , triclocarban pregnancy , triclocarban risks , triclosan antibiotics , triclosan risks , triclosan triclocarban

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Pregnant Women Shouldn’t Use Antibiotics Because of Risk to Fetus, Study Shows

Dow Chemical sends mixed messages on climate change

October 25, 2013 by  
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The chemicals behemoth is considered a sustainability leader, except when it's not. How to make heads or tails?

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Dow Chemical sends mixed messages on climate change

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