College Students School Industry on How to Make Greener Products

UC Berkeley’s Greener Solutions program offers students the chance to develop environmentally friendly solutions to toxic problems.

(Photo: Method Products/Facebook)

Sep 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rachel Cernansky is a freelance journalist based in Denver, Colorado.

When executives at Method, the maker of eco-friendly cleaning products, wanted to make their dish soaps and hand cleansers even safer for the environment and people, they turned to a group of graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley.

The students, part of a three-year-old program called Greener Solutions, serve as a next-generation laboratory for companies and industries that want to take toxic chemicals out of everything from blue jeans to home insulation.

Method uses a lot of nontoxic ingredients, but preservatives are a challenge for the entire industry. No one wants to buy moldy soap, after all. But many preservatives, such as formaldehyde, are quite toxic. To broaden its search for more natural preservatives, Method enlisted the help of Greener Solutions.

For the Method project, student Billy Hart Cooper said his team tapped data compiled by the Biomimicry Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit focused on nature-inspired solutions to environmental challenges. Cooper’s team tried to figure out how plants and animals repel bacteria and naturally prevent mold. They realized there are all sorts of natural antimicrobial chemicals and began to study their potential to replace the toxic preservatives used in consumer products.

That’s the goal of the course: to teach students, yes, but also to help lay the groundwork for real-world advances in chemistry and in the products people use every day.

Greener Solutions is designed to teach graduate students research principles in the emerging field of green chemistry. Creators Meg Schwarzman and Martin Mulvihill find companies to partner with each academic year, and they have students in the class collaborate with them on a specific challenge. That can range from researching nontoxic preservatives for personal care products—as in Method’s case—to exploring substitutes for formaldehyde in wrinkle-free clothing, the focus for Levi’s, a partner in 2013.

“We didn’t want to send students out into companies that would put them to work on a range of issues out of our control, so we designed the program to keep the research and teaching here on campus,” Schwarzman said. “We work with the partners to shape the research question and then guide the students through the process of answering it.”

The classroom research is meant to provide a jumping-off point for industry or other researchers to pursue. Indeed, after graduating, Cooper landed a job with a U.S. Department of Agriculture–Method joint project to study some of the substances his team had suggested may help keep mold from developing in soaps.

He’s been looking at thymol and carvacrol, which are found in thyme and oregano, respectively, and have antimicrobial properties, to try to understand more about their chemical structure. They are phenols, or ring-based molecules, he said, and that may have everything to do with why they can be antimicrobial as well as nontoxic. It may be a “clever way that nature has exploited phenol compounds,” he said, making them safe for plants and animals.

Method is testing some of the substances researched by the student team and may test others that turn out to be promising—meaning they are effective at preventing mold as well as compatible with other product ingredients. Ultimately, they could be adopted by entire industries, not just one or two companies.

There are typically 10 students in a class. Students last year were divided into three groups, each working with one of three companies: Method, Seventh Generation (another eco-cleaning products maker), and cosmetics company Beautycounter. Student Tina Huang and her team spent the semester looking for safer alternatives to methylene diphenyl diisocyanate in spray polyurethane foam insulation, which California state officials are proposing to regulate owing to safety concerns.

RELATED: The Tiny but Toxic Ingredient in Your Sunscreen

Now an environmental scientist at a consulting firm in Oakland, California, Huang said the project gave her a more holistic perspective. The class enrolls students from various academic backgrounds, such as chemistry and public health, so the teams end up being interdisciplinary. Huang’s studies, for example, focused mainly on children’s and public health.

“From a public health perspective, we’re always asking, ‘Why are we even using these toxic chemicals in products if we know they cause cancer?’ ” she said. “It was really interesting partnering with an industry representative, for example, because then you get to see—oh, this has great technical performance, so I understand why you want to use this chemical.”

The representative was Will Lorenz, vice president of sales at General Coatings, a company that sells roofing materials, polyurethane foam, and other industrial and residential products. Lorenz was able to provide feedback on substances that would be more realistic for industry to use. Huang recalled he had a preference for “drop-in replacements” that could replace toxic ingredients without reformulating the product.

No drop-in replacements exist yet, but Lorenz said the research from Greener Solutions may put the spray foam insulation industry on track to finding cleaner alternatives to existing materials.

He’s been in contact with a scientist at Oregon State University who’s going to help take the research to the next level, looking at alternatives for polyurethane production. “It gave us an opportunity to speak to somebody we wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise,” Lorenz said.

For students, it’s gratifying to know they aren’t doing research in a vacuum. There’s not only a real need for the research; they will also have feedback from the partner company on what solutions may work and why.

“Ultimately, groundbreaking technologies have to come from cooperative efforts,” said Lorenz. “They’re either from leading-edge companies that are doing that research or they come from government programs or basically research funded at university levels because they’re willing to look at unique routes. Whereas industry, we’re always time- and money-constrained.”

He also valued the opportunity for industry to have a say in research that was just starting out. “We thought it was an excellent opportunity to provide input—and like anything else, we thought we could put water on a seed and see how it grows.”