July 30, 2021

A Conversation with Michal Freedhoff, PSX 2021 Keynote Speaker

Michal Freedhoff, PhD, has over 20 years of experience related to environmental and science policy in government, starting in 1996 when she became a Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow in then-Representative Ed Markey’s office, after receiving a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Rochester. On June 14, 2021, the Senate confirmed her as the Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She will be the keynote speaker at PSX 2021, which will take place Sept. 28–30, 2021, in Anaheim, California.

AIHA had the privilege of interviewing Freedhoff about her experiences, expertise, and perspectives on product stewardship.

How did you get involved in environmental protection?

Like many scientists, I had a very limited view of what science policy actually meant when I moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow. I imagined it would focus a great deal on the research and development budget process. But during my fellowship year working for then-Congressman Ed Markey, I was asked to help develop a response to a bill related to high-level nuclear waste, which essentially sought to remove all of the drinking water and geologic requirements from the law because the desired policy outcome could not meet those requirements. It was a stark and very illuminating look into how important the scientific underpinnings of environmental law and policy is to every aspect of our lives.

What is the most unexpected—but helpful—piece of advice that you have received as a scientist working in government?

Scientists have an extreme view of what it means to be an “expert.” Generally, we believe we have to write an original peer-reviewed research paper to even begin to qualify as someone with expertise. There are many scientists working in government who truly are preeminent in their academic fields, but often, they are not the scientists who work in policy.

At the very beginning of my tenure as a congressional staffer, a non-proliferation expert with a Ph.D. in political science, who worked at the Congressional Research Service, asked me if I knew how to calculate potential nuclear yield for something he was working on for my office. It was not my area of “expertise,” but it was merely an exercise in doing a particular kind of unit conversion, so I figured it out. He thought I was some kind of wizard. His reaction taught me about how scientists often don’t consider their ability to ask questions and figure out how to answer them to be “expertise” in and of itself. I’ve internalized this as I have worked on a very broad range of issues over the years, about which I often knew very little initially.

How do you define product stewardship or product sustainability?

I see product stewardship as actions that catalyze a more sustainable marketplace and increase the competitiveness of U.S. industry. My office’s Pollution Prevention (P2) program is home to several examples, including the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) program. For almost 30 years, the EPP program has helped harness the power of the federal pocketbook for product stewardship in three critical ways.

First, it encourages federal government purchasers to procure services, such as janitorial services, rather than products. This encourages our contractors to sustainably manage the goods being used.

The EPP program also engages in the development of private-sector product sustainability standards that increase and incentivize circular design. The program coordinates the federal government’s participation in the development of sustainability standards, which are managed by organizations such as Cradle to Cradle, the National Science Foundation, ASTM International, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and several others. This work spans multiple sectors, such as building and construction, electronics, and professional services.

Finally, the EPP program advocates for product sustainability through its Recommendations of Specifications, Standards, and Ecolabels, which help federal purchasers identify and procure environmentally preferable products and services. The Recommendations cover 25 purchase categories, include more than 40 private sector standards and ecolabels, and provide guidance on statutory requirements or federally owned or managed ecolabels that may be applicable in a product category.

In what ways is EPA making strides in the area of product stewardship? What are you most excited or optimistic about?

There is so much exciting work being done in this area across the federal government, but I want to highlight Executive Order 14008, which President Biden signed in January. Among many other provisions, it directs federal agencies to develop climate action plans that “use the power of procurement to increase the energy and water efficiency” in federal government facilities. I believe that implementing Executive Order 14008 will accelerate product stewardship. Moreover, EPA tools like the Recommendations of Specifications, Standards, and Ecolabels assist federal agencies in achieving the president’s goals.

I’m also excited about EPA’s Safer Choice program. EPA certifies and allows use of the Safer Choice label on products containing ingredients that meet stringent health and environmental criteria and undergo annual audits. These audits confirm the products are manufactured to Safer Choice’s rigorous health and environmental requirements. Safer Choice was recently added to Amazon’s sustainable shopping initiative called Climate Pledge Friendly which helps customers shop for more than 75,000 products through the company’s online store. Highlighting Safer Choice-certified products makes it easier for consumers to locate products that contain safer chemical ingredients without sacrificing quality or performance.

Over the next few years, we plan to strengthen the Safer Choice program by updating and strengthening its standards, adding new product categories, and identifying additional safer chemicals for use in products. Safer Choice outreach and partnership activities will add a focus on bringing Safer Choice-certified products to people of color and low-income communities, which is part of EPA’s overall commitment to environmental justice.

With more than 400 partner companies and approximately 2,000 certified products in the marketplace, companies have invested heavily in this EPA partnership. Consumer and industry interest in the Safer Choice program—and safer chemical products in general—is growing across chemical product value chains. Product stewards, including consumers, retailers, and institutional purchasers, also drive demand for products labeled under the program.

What is one future trend you would like to see more focus towards from the product stewardship community?

One shift I would like to see the product stewardship community make is toward greater use of safer chemicals across a wide array of product categories. There is a lot of energy in this direction already, but there are still opportunities to encourage circular design across the board. I would like to highlight EPA’s Safer Choice program and Safer Chemical Ingredients List as useful tools for product stewards interested in the use of safer chemicals.

In your position, there are times when you have to make quick, important decisions. Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how the EPA approaches both risk management and the decision-making process?

The pandemic challenged every person and organization to quickly adapt to new circumstances. EPA worked hard to show commonsense flexibility during the pandemic. For instance, last April, in response to reports of shortages of active ingredients used in surface disinfectants, we eased some routine process requirements to enable products to reach consumers faster without waiting for EPA approval.

We’re now adapting further by shifting our focus to expediting the review of more novel products, such as those that provide long-lasting surface protection or kill airborne SARS-CoV-2, especially in light of CDC’s statements and other scientific evidence that indicates air, not surfaces, is the major route of virus transmission.

What are some of the key messages that you hope PSX attendees will be able to take from your session?

I would like to again emphasize the federal government’s commitment to driving more sustainable products for all and a more sustainable marketplace in general. The federal government spends more than $590 billion on goods and services annually. There are EPA tools that encourage these federal contractors to use greener products and services that can reduce climate impacts, improve the health of frontline communities, prevent pollution, and increase U.S. industry competitiveness.

Want to learn more about Dr. Michal Freedhoff and her work? Register today for PSX 2021 and join us in Anaheim on September 28-30, 2021.


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