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Shifting From Risk Assessments to Alternatives Assessments

An Interview with Product Stewardship 2019 Opening Keynote: Dr. Joel A. Tickner, ScD

​Joel A. Tickner, ScD, has dedicated his career to making chemistry safer for people and the environment. As a professor of Environmental Health at UMass Lowell and the Director of the Chemicals Policy and Science Program at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, Dr. Tickner advocates for the adoption of green chemistry: a practice that reduces, or eliminates, the use of harmful chemical substances throughout the value chain.  

Given that Product Stewardship 2019​ is the platform for discussing the newest ideas and best practices in the industry, it was only fitting to invite Dr. Tickner, an internationally respected expert on chemicals and their effects on consumers, to deliver the conference’s opening keynote presentations

Before he takes the stage in Columbus, we spoke with Dr. Tickner about green chemistry, sustainability, and what he thinks of the Product Stewardship Society’s annual event.  

Could you expand on your role as the Director of the Chemicals Policy and Science Program at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production?  

Joel A. Tickner (JT): My role there is to think about how we more effectively protect consumer health using safer, more sustainable chemicals in the manufacturing process and final products. The Lowell Center helps develop, implement, and evaluate more sustainable forms of production and consumption by working on science, policy, and practice implementation models.  

With the goal of accelerating the transition to using safer chemical products, There are important transformations that must take place in three areas: science, policy, and markets. We’re working in all of these areas.  

How’s that different from the way companies currently integrate chemicals into their products?  

JT: Much of the way we think about chemicals management is about how bad, or safe, chemicals are. I’m a health scientist by training, so I think having this debate doesn’t benefit innovation or consumer health.  

Instead, I’m proposing we shift the way we think about the science of toxic chemicals from a risk assessment-based approach to an alternatives assessment-based one. When we have concerns about a certain chemical, why don’t we spend our scientific and technical resources on finding a better alternative rather than spending years debating how dangerous or safe that chemical might be?  

I view chemical challenges as opportunities to design safer chemicals. Part of conducting an alternative assessment is thinking about chemical problems as functional challenges. If we can identify ways to meet that chemical function in a less harmful way, then that’s a benefit for everyone.  

Now that product stewardship has become an established operational practice within lots of companies, how would you assess the progress made so far?   

JT: We’re in a very different world than we were five years ago. The market pressure is much greater. For example, the GC3 Retailer Leadership Council, consisting of Amazon, Best Buy, CVS Health, Home Depot, Kingfisher, Lowe’s, Meijer, Staples, Target, and Walmart, has recently put out a statement detailing their commitment to understanding which chemicals of concern are in their products, engaging with suppliers in identifying safer alternatives, and educating their customers about safer products. 

These retailers represent around hundreds of billions of dollars of purchasing power, so they can shift the market significantly, especially with the increasing market demand for safer, more sustainable chemistry.

I’m also seeing more willingness to bring solutions to the marketplace. We can’t deny though that, often, there are challenges: supply chains are not often willing to pay for the costs of green chemistry, as it can be more expensive in the beginning and alternatives may not perform similarly to the incumbents. 

How do you personally motivate companies to consider developing internal tools and practices to drive green chemistry throughout supply chains?   

JT: We had a group of brands struggling with identifying safe and effective preservatives in consumer products come to us to help them. There’s a shrinking palette for preservatives and an increasing regulatory and market pressure, so they asked us to work with them to find better preservatives.  

As a result, we brought together 11 brands, 2 retailers, and 6 chemical manufacturers into a collaborative innovation process to identify potential solutions. And because of this, there are partnerships forming now between large companies and startups working on developing safer chemicals for consumers.  

In addition to this, we’re talking to chemical suppliers, asking them to come to the table to discuss the possibility of scaling more innovative technologies. In my other role as Co-Director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute – a UMass Lowell based institute that works with Massachusetts companies to reduce their use of toxic chemicals, we are helping small and medium companies with technology challenges in finding safer solvents when they don’t have the capacity to test and evaluate them. 

What value do you think professional conferences such as Product Stewardship 2019 bring to the industry and consumers?  

JT: The more we have opportunities for professionals to collaborate and share best practices and experiences across the value chain, the closer we get to implementing safer, more sustainable technologies. It’s also a great opportunity for product stewardship professionals to connect with the product design community, bringing the approaches product stewards take to the design and production processes.  

Finally, what can Product Stewardship 2019 attendees expect to take away from your opening session? 

JT: Market demands and regulatory pressures are driving the need for safer chemicals, particularly in consumer products. I’m arguing that shifting our focus towards adopting safer chemicals has significant potential to reduce risks throughout the life cycle of products, enhancing product stewardship. I will also discuss lessons learned from our efforts to create the field of alternatives assessment, build supply chain collaborations to accelerate green chemistry solutions through the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, and engage with policymakers through the GC3 Sustainable Chemistry Alliance to guide supportive policy.

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