Now more than ever, Generation Z (or simply Gen Z) looks ahead into an uncertain world. The most pressing concern of my generation is the sustainability of the world around us. The ongoing ‘Climate Crisis’ is seemingly all-encompassing, dominating the news cycle and often at the forefront of most people's minds.
The steps we can take to reduce our ecological footprint on a personal scale have been drilled into our heads - use public transport and renewable forms of transport - like walking or cycling, eat less meat, buy second-hand, take shorter showers, and recycle. Yet, the effects on the environment from industrial processes are concerning. The not-for-profit global environmental reporting platform, Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has claimed that since 1998, 100 of all the hundreds of thousands of companies in the world have been responsible for 71% of global GHG emissions that cause global warming. In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported 75.8 million tonnes of solid waste was generated in 2018-19, which was a 10% increase over the last two years (since 2016-17). It is to this end to note the important role that companies and investors play in tackling climate change and environmental sustainability.
An overview of some hazardous and toxic waste chemicals: solvents
Waste chemicals present a risk for people and the environment. This waste can take a number of forms, including "solvents," which refers to a class of chemical compounds described by function – that is, to dilute or dissolve another substance to create a solution. A solvent is usually a liquid, but it can be a solid or gas.
Many solvents are used in a wide variety of applications in ordinary households (e.g. asbestos, paint, cleaning products, E-waste), commercial operations (e.g. resins, solvents, lead acid batteries, tyres) and can be sourced from industrial processes (e.g. contaminated soil, zinc compounds, oils.
When solvents are disposed of improperly - in the garbage, on the ground or down the drain - the hazardous chemicals may contaminate lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. Due to their potential environmental toxicity, these products must be correctly disposed of and, if possible, recycled, as applicable under relevant legislation and guidelines for households and businesses under each Australian State or Territory.
Solvents and sustainable chemistry
Alternative solvents that have near-identical properties, yet are sustainably produced, less environmentally toxic, but more biodegradable, are a topic of growing interest within the research community and industry. A range of greener or more sustainable, 'green solvents' have been proposed and developed to meet growing demand and awareness of the impact of solvents on pollution, energy use, air quality, and general environmental contamination.
Dichloromethane (DCM or methylene chloride), an industrial solvent, is often used when a high degree of solvency of organic matter is required. Used in a range of products (e.g. paint strippers, paint removers, film coatings, pharmaceuticals, finishing electronics manufacturing, and propellant in aerosols), DCM is a suspected carcinogen, and a known and regulated environmental contaminant (see e.g. SafeWork NSW). An alternative green solvent to DCM is 2-Methyltetrahydrofuran (2-MeTHF). Derived from corn or sugarcane, 2-MeTHF has very similar chemical properties to DCM, facilitating many of the same reactions, with the added benefits of being sustainably producible, biodegradable, and less harmful to personal health.
However, 2-MeTHF has its drawbacks. At present, the cost to manufacture 2-MeTHFs is far greater than DCM, and thus may pose increased costs in the supply chain and ultimately, to consumers. Research has also identified that 2-MeTHF may be a less efficient solvent for certain reactions, requiring a greater volume or facilitating a slower reaction. An additional complication is an investment in altering methods to suit the use of 2-MeTHF.
Another solvent that has recently been used to replace DCM when extracting samples by liquid-liquid or solid phase extraction (SPE) or when performing sample extract cleanup/derivatisations in a Laboratory is ethyl acetate. It has a similar polarity to DCM, but is not chlorinated and is less harmful to both the environment and human health. It also costs a similar amount to DCM to purchase and is cheaper to dispose of. Having a higher boiling point than DCM has advantages too as it evaporates into the air less than DCM (resulting in potentially less being breathed in), it does not dry up as readily when dealing with small amounts of expensive sample extract and it injects much better onto a GC than DCM does.
The implementation of sustainable chemicals has its current challenges. However, this should not dampen the inspiration of the research community and entrepreneurs in making further advances in product development, which will achieve such an important aim for us all.
E-waste is the name given to the disposal of any electrical or electronic equipment such as computers, televisions, mobile phones, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines into Landfills. Since China stopped taking the World's E-waste in 2018, there has been a lot of publicity on this.
Third World countries have continued to import tonnes and tonnes of the World's E-waste, but poor practices have resulted in an environmental and health disaster for these countries. In fact, E-waste has become an environmental disaster for the World to try and solve.
Dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals that naturally leach from the metals and plastics inside these goods, when buried in landfills, end up in the groundwater. These pose serious environmental risks to our soil, freshwater, air, wildlife – indeed, our whole ecosystem.
The toxic materials include heavy metals such as beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and lead as well of Organics such as flame retardants – polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins & furans (PCDD/Fs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs).
“Dedicating my professional career as an enviornmental chemist to providing analysis and insight to the professions tasked with cleaning up our environment and monitoring human health, I am passionate about this issue and the challenges we continue to face for future generations. It has been noticeable that there have been far more requests in recent years, in Australia, for analysing new emerging persistent pollutants like these” says Envirolab Group Organics Manager, David Williams.
Single-use plastic and glass
A further complication to consider when addressing the sustainability of environmental science is the presence of single-use plastic and glass. While some research stipulates plastics-related policy changes have reduced the consumption of single-use plastics, the shift towards reusable items has not been truly reflected, as plastic remains ubiquitous to scientific industries. The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Report 2019 on plastic waste pollution has urged policymakers to draft a global, legally binding agreement to stop plastic entering marine environments and to establish strong national targets to cut down on plastic use - on average, we each use 53 kilograms of plastic a year. By 2030, this is predicted to double. Over the last year, the banning of reusable coffee cups by many cafes and other outlets serving hot drinks during the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), is likely to add to the mountain of waste piling up.
Reducing the overall consumption of plastics by substituting reusable glassware when permissible has been identified as being beneficial in minimising the waste stream. However, this again presents challenges. For example in a laboratory setting, the decontamination of glassware introduces new costs and may consume extra time, an expense many labs may not be able to justify. Yet, this is the tip of the iceberg. Our Group Quality, Health Safety and Environment (QHSE) Manager, Matthew Mansfield explained there is a fine line between achieving a sustainable solution or adding more challenges to the mix. Recyclables may contain residues, such as chemical, pharmaceutical, clinical and radioactive substances, which are 'recycling contaminants' and therefore should not be added to the recycling stream.
This is the reason why recycling companies will assess business waste before accepting it into the recycling facility. Businesses, including commercial laboratories, therefore, follow strict procedures to manage waste removal responsibly and efficiently. These procedures also limit waste from potentially entering inappropriate waste streams, which may additionally pose a risk to the environment or affect recycling.
As technology advances, more items will become suitable in recycling streams. This aligns with Envirolab's culture of continuous improvement - protecting the health and safety of staff and minimising our environmental impact.
We cannot go back in time to change the past, but we can work towards the future. The road forward will require ongoing improvement with a general encouragement to invest in a variety of options.
As a member of the team at Envirolab, it has been great to see some initiatives aimed to reduce waste to landfill, energy consumption, and investing heavily in renewable energy and our recycling capacity. Conscious of the amount of food waste being generated each year, Envirolab Services Sydney commenced in 2020 on-site food-waste composting and a staff-managed vegetable garden. In early 2021, an old battery collection scheme was also set up.
Credit: Special thanks to Dave Williams and Matthew Mansfield.