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Green chemistry

It burns Ellen McGregor to see manufacturers send chemical waste to be incinerated. Organic chemicals are derived from oil, says the president of Fielding Chemical Technologies Inc. “When a manufacturer chooses to burn their chemical waste, they are burning a non-renewable resource.”


December 10, 2010
by Kim Laudrum

Giving chemicals new life at Fielding’s Mississauga, Ont. plant.
Photo: Fielding

It burns Ellen McGregor to see manufacturers send chemical waste to be incinerated. Organic chemicals are derived from oil, says the president of Fielding Chemical Technologies Inc. “When a manufacturer chooses to burn their chemical waste, they are burning a non-renewable resource.”

Spent chemicals, such as those in the gunwash used to clear paint guns in the automotive industry, isopropyl alcohol used in making pharmaceuticals, or even harmful refrigerants, can be recycled—some restored like new—says McGregor.

“It’s better for the environment to recycle chemicals than to incinerate them or use them to fuel cement kilns. It leaves more of a carbon footprint to produce virgin chemicals. It leaves more of a carbon footprint to continue to mine our lands for oil. So, if you’ve protected that non-renewable resource in a way that’s responsible to the environment, you have served the environment in a better way than to use it for fuel.”

The company has been recognized for its enviromental focus and green efforts, winning Deloitte’s 2010 Canadian Technology Green 15 award which acknowledges any technology that promotes more efficient use and reuse of resources in industrial production or consumption.

Not surprisingly, McGregor is a proponent of green chemistry, a relatively new, burgeoning sector within the $3-trillion global chemistry industry. Driven by sustainability and climate change challenges, green chemists aim to design products and processes that eliminate or minimize damage to the environment while reducing waste and energy consumption.

For example, the patent holders of painkiller Ibuprofen revisited their formulation in the 1990s, substantially reducing the use of solvents per kilogram of drug produced by using green chemistry. This reduced the waste generated and substantially improved their profitability.

A chemical recycling business since 1955 when Ellen’s father Jack McGregor convinced Ford Motor Co. of Canada to reclaim its gunwash, Fielding continues to pursue environmental solutions for manufacturers. The solvent and refrigerant recycler’s credentials include registration to the environmental management standard ISO 14001 and the quality standard ISO 9001. The Mississauga, Ont.-based company, which has 60 employees, is a member of both Ontario’s Environmental Leaders and the chemical industry’s Responsible Distribution programs. And it recently mentored Rejuvenate, a green chemistry startup that has since sold one of its innovations.

Fielding is one of eight industrial sponsors of GreenCentre Canada, a national Centre of Excellence established at Queen’s University in 2009 for commercializing early-stage green chemistry discoveries. GreenCentre Canada brings together researchers from universities across Canada, teams them up with private investors, provides laboratory facilities and funding with the intention of bringing innovations to the commercialization stage. To date, 160 disclosures from 68 research groups at 23 institutions have been identified. The centre has secured $24 million in funding and created 18 highly skilled jobs at its 10,000 square-foot facility.

One recent project with interesting potential is the creation of a solvent that changes its polarity characteristics. Rui Resendes, GreenCentre Canada’s executive director, says it’s used to resolve some significant environmental challenges. It could help deal with expanded polystyrene foam or post-consumer motor oil containers that end up in landfill sites.

Back in black
While green chemistry is good for the environment, another important driver of innovation is dollars and sense, says Resendes. It makes sense to use less energy, use resources more efficiently, create less waste and require less waste treatment. Recycling avoids penalties and fees for dumping.

“Green is becoming increasingly synonymous with a black P&L sheet,” says Resendes.

Fielding will pay for some materials that an incinerator firm would charge to burn, because it’s feedstock.

“There is a dawning out there that people now do want to explore whether or not they could get paid for material that we will take off their hands. And so often we pay,” McGregor says. “What CEO wouldn’t be interested in reducing their costs and creating a revenue stream?”

It can cost a manufacturing company between 15 and 25 cents per litre to incinerate its chemical waste. Fielding will take it for free or pay for it, depending on the type of chemical, cleanliness and size of the stream. The top three chemicals the company pays for are: isopropyl alcohol, ethylene glycol and refrigerants.

Depending on the quality of the material, Fielding can create a new product. For example, it collects material from the pharmaceutical industry and turns it into a press cleaner; and glycol from the aviation industry is turned into antifreeze for the automotive aftermarket.

Chemicals can also be reclaimed. Isopropyl alcohol is recycled using fractionation, which removes water from spent solvents. The reclaimed material is within parts per million as of virgin but costs 10% to 20% less.

Another advantage of recycling these types of chemicals is a manifest exemption for closed loop streams. Legally, any waste that has to be moved must be tracked and the company must pay a manifest fee unless the product is being recycled.

“There is more stability in the cost of closed-loop selling. The price is fixed and stable,” points out Fielding’s marketing support manager Katelyn Gorelle. “If you’re stuck buying virgin chemicals your costs could go up or down depending on market conditions. Prices could skyrocket. It’s a bit like locking in your mortgage.”

Health concerns are also driving new regulations intended to encourage manufacturers to reduce toxic waste. Ontario’s Toxics Reduction Act, which took effect on Jan. 1, requires some 2,000 Ontario manufacturers that employ 10 or more people and involve 10,000 kilograms or more of specific substances to report and track harmful chemicals and develop a pollution prevention plan. The goal is to reduce the creation, use, release and/or off-site transfer of toxic substances and to encourage greener alternatives, including new technologies. Like a successful law in Massachusetts, the implementation of these plans is voluntary.

“We don’t know yet if it [the legislation] will work or not,” says Andrew King, department leader for health, safety and environment in Canada for United Steelworkers. Yet the organization, which formed an alliance with Environmental Defence called Blue Green Canada, applauded the announcement of Ontario’s Toxics Reduction Act.

“Clearly the driver for us is carcinogens,” King told PLANT. The majority of deaths resulting from occupational disease come from chemical exposure in the workplace, yet there is no strategy at any political level to deal with the issue.

“Given the thousands of carcinogens out there that we do know and the hundreds of thousands that we don’t know, it’s important that a strategy be developed,” he says.

“Turn the paradigm on its head. Build into the engineering process non-toxics use. Push hard in green chemistry. Identify alternatives, including other things that could be done in the chemical process and things that could be done without chemicals. Using high heat in autoclaves, for example, is a good alternative.”

Clearly the health of workers tops the list of benefits, but the other advantage of transitioning to green manufacturing is the creation of jobs and an economy that will be more sustainable in the long run.

Kim Laudrum is an award-winning writer based in Toronto, who specializes in sustainability issues. E-mail klaudrum@rogers.com.