Why not just use something else?

By John C. Warner, President and Chief Technology Officer, Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, john warner webWoburn, Mass.

The battle over bisphenol A is heating up this week.  The amount of time and effort being spent on both sides of the debate is significant, to say the least. Like many other materials in commerce that have wound up on the “could be dangerous” list,  BPA’s story is quite complicated. Validity of test conditions is challenged, the objectivity of some science is questioned. It seems to be so simple; if a material like BPA is as bad as many reports say, why quibble? Why not just use something else!

An alternative would really solve the problem right now. Imagine having a cost-effective substitute with all of the same performance characteristics of BPA, except, of course, its ability to interfere with the endocrine system.  Imagine if manufacturers of plastics, polymers, and thermal print paper could simply pick up the phone and order another material that did the same job but was safe. Imagine if a material existed that was consistent with the twelve principles of green chemistry.

If an alternative to BPA does not exist today, one should reasonably ask, “Why not?” or “What’s taking so long?” The sad reality is there will likely never be a single “magic bullet” alternative to BPA.  It becomes a chicken and egg story. One must consider the inventive process and look at the history of the various products. When the engineers invented the products that use BPA, they started with BPA. It was a tool available to them in their toolbox of molecular building blocks. Because it was around decades ago as an extremely inexpensive starting material, their imaginations ran wild with questions like “what can I do with this material?” Learning about its interesting properties, they came up with new and clever uses. Eventually through this process, BPA became integrated into countless materials and products.

Unfortunately, “switching out” BPA for an alternative is not easy. It is not like changing a tire on an automobile.  Most every product and material that has the compound in it has several other components in it as well. And all of these components are precisely balanced with one another to make the product work. For example, several molecular interactions are in balance in order to prevent a clear plastic form from becoming opaque over time, stopping a pigment from seeping out of a material, preventing a material from fading in the light and allowing a plastic to be flexible at a wide range of temperatures. It took scientists and engineers years to create the precise identity and quantities of assorted ingredients in each material and product. This balance of molecular properties defines what the materials or products are.

But there is cause for great hope. When I say that there can be no single “magic bullet” that will replace BPA in all materials and products, that does not mean that we are “stuck” with it forever.  Each and every material and product will have to be examined on its own.  There are people looking at replacing BPA in polycarbonate bottles, in can liners, and in thermal imaging paper. Ingenious use of biomaterials, novel catalysts, new solvent systems, the very foundation of green chemistry are emerging as solutions in academic, industrial and government labs all over the word.

The technical hurdles are difficult indeed, but human innovation is rising to the challenge. It may take months or years, but technologies consistent with green chemistry are being created. Another obstacle is economics. If instead of a single “magic bullet,” we have several dozen niche solutions generated, then the benefits of economies of scale will diminish. Cost will very likely be a little higher, investment will be a little riskier and profits will be difficult to project.

But we live in a different world than years ago. Based on the work of countless people and organizations around the world, the public now has a major role in promoting safe products and steering new technologies and economics. I sit on the edge of my seat waiting for more and more novel technologies to emerge. I can’t wait. We can’t wait.