Briefing Report: (Green) Chemistry 101

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


The 2007-08 legislative session saw the state take significant action in the field of green chemistry. The Governor signed legislation requiring the Department of Toxic Substances Control to adopt regulations that implement his Green Chemistry Initiative.

These measures were publicly applauded as further examples of California “going green.” However, the unspoken truth of the Green Chemistry Initiative is that it will increase the costs of consumer products and result in higher retail prices. As with other environmental legislation passed in recent years, these actions further the question: Is California adequately accounting for economic impacts in our effort to prove how environmentally advanced we are?


The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that green chemistry “consists of chemicals and chemical processes designed to reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts.” The EPA has conducted a Green Chemistry Program since the early 1990s. Since that time, the agency has funded research grants and partnered with academia, industry and other organizations to facilitate the development of green chemistry.

The field of green chemistry was pioneered by chemists Paul Anastas and John Warner in their 1998 work, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. This publication produced the so-called “12 principles of green chemistry” by which chemical products would be designed to better protect the public health and reduce their environmental impact. Among the recommendations were to: design products that have little or no toxicity, utilize renewable feed stocks, reuse chemical intermediates, utilize safer solvents and increase energy efficiency, among others. (Note: The complete list of principles can be found at:

The underlining theme of green chemistry is that rather than focusing on how to properly dispose of a product at the end of its lifecycle (i.e. recycling vs. landfilling), producers should design products at their infancy that have a limited environmental effect. The goal is to create products that are “benign by design.”

California Charges Ahead

Prior to the establishment of the Green Chemistry Initiative, chemical product regulation was done primarily on a case-by-case basis through the legislative process. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 484 (Migden) which required the disclosure of chemical ingredients in cosmetic products. This bill was followed by Senate Bill 1379 (Perata) which made California the only state to measure human exposure to chemicals. In signing these measures, the Governor affirmed his desire for a “comprehensive and unified approach to chemicals.”

In response, California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Linda Adams announced the establishment of the Green Chemistry Initiative. The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) was charged with leading the Initiative. Through a process involving numerous stakeholders, the Department would make recommendations and develop policy goals to make green chemistry a reality in California. Throughout 2008, the Department conducted panels and workshops to solicit ideas and recommendations from stakeholders.

Concurrently, the Administration entered into negotiations to legislatively authorize the Green Chemistry Initiative. Two bills emerged in August of 2008.

Enacting Legislation

The formal authorization occurred when the Governor signed Assembly Bill 1879 (Feuer) in September of 2008. This bill required the DTSC, among other provisions, to adopt regulations and establish a process by which chemicals or chemical ingredients in products may be identified and prioritized for consideration as being “chemicals of concern.” The author stated that the bill represented a “balanced, science-based approach to addressing the danger of hazardous chemicals contained in consumer products.” Furthermore, supporters stated that the bill provided an open and transparent process by which the DTSC, and not the Legislature, would make decisions about how to regulate consumer products.

A companion measure was Senate Bill 509 (Simitian). The legislation required the DTSC to establish a Toxics Information Clearinghouse. This Clearinghouse will be an Internet-based system by which hazard trait and environmental data will be collected, maintained and distributed.

These bills received broad based support. Environmental and public health organizations supported the over-arching goal of regulating chemical products. A number of industry organizations tacitly supported the measures because they preferred to negotiate the regulation of chemicals through the regulatory process rather than through the legislative process. In addition, SB 509 contained exemptions for certain consumer products.

Green Chemistry Initiative Final Report

Last December, the DTSC released its final report and made six policy recommendations. Two of these recommendations encompassed AB 1879 and SB 509. These recommendations were:

  • Expand Pollution Prevention to assist California businesses to lead the world in greener design and production.

  • Develop Green Chemistry Workforce Education and Training, Research and Development and Technology Transfer to meet global demand for greener materials and products.

  • Create an Online Product Ingredient Network to disclose chemical ingredients in products sold in the state to allow consumers and businesses to make safer choices.

  • Create an Online Toxic Clearinghouse (SB 509, Chapter 560, Statutes of 2008) to increase knowledge about hazards for chemicals.

  • Accelerate the Quest for Safer Products (AB 1879, Chapter 599, Statutes of 2008) to make the transition to more sustainable, safer products more quickly using science-based alternative analysis and lifecycle thinking.

  • Move Toward a Cradle-to-Cradle Economy to leverage market forces to produce products that are “benign-by-design.”

Implementation: What it means to Californians?

The development of “green” consumer products is a worthwhile goal. However, the financial implications of these policy recommendations are often ignored. It is much easier to tout how “environmentally friendly” California has become while turning a blind eye to economic realities. The reality of the Green Chemistry is that Californians will pay more for consumer products. The DTSC’s final report includes comments about how the six policy recommendations will be funded. The comments are vague and include statement such as “funding mechanisms must be explored.”

In cases where the Department makes specific funding recommendations, they acknowledge that revenue sources will likely come from producers, suppliers, retailers and other “industry sectors.” For example, the question of funding for the third recommendation of the report is addressed as follows:

“The development and operation of the web-based portal could be supported by its direct users – product manufacturers, suppliers and retailers who sell products and goods in California. The (regulatory) administrator could charge appropriate costs to those users.”

The end result is that California businesses will face additional costs. Each regulation imposes another incremental cost. These costs, while small in their own right, eventually add up. In an effort to recoup these costs, industry will pass the costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Environmental policies often generate automatic support from the public and interest groups alike. However, it is important to acknowledge the significant costs associated with these policies.


For more information on this report or other Environmental Quality issues , contact Dane Wadle, Senate Republican Office of Policy.