The Contagious Optimism of Environmentalist David Boyd

In the just published (2015) The Optimistic Environmentalist, David R. Boyd, a Canadian environmental lawyer reveals the history of a movement that is not only gathering momentum but is both realistic and necessary. Although he makes it clear that the future needs to be far greener, he focuses on outlining recent accomplishments and on revealing the ideas, approaches and technologies that will lead to more improvements.

What has worked is a combination of legislation at the national and global level and innovative action at the level where 54% of the population lives, in cities. These efforts have led to many improvements in water and air quality, in using renewable energy-forms and in cycling resources.

We will begin with examples of environmental laws and treaties. Signed in 1998 and coming to force 6 years later, the Rotterdam Convention limits the trade of pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted.  The Stockholm Convention of 2001 went further by originally banning a dozen environmentally-persistent and toxic organic compounds including polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs) and dioxin, both of which are class 1 carcinogens, meaning that like radium isotopes and tobacco smoke, they are known to cause cancer . Also good news is what Boyd forgot to mention, that the Stockholm Convention continues to add more compounds to the list. Most recently, in 2013, they added the flame-retardant hexabromocyclododecane, to bring the total number of compounds on the list to twenty.

Banned since 2013: the flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane.

Banned since 2013: the flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane.

The widely-travelled hexabromocyclododecane, which is widely found in the environment and in human breast milk, is highly toxic to aquatic organisms and can potentially have all sorts of physiological effects on humans.

Through strict logging rules and by forcing large landowners to keep half their property forested, Brazil has slowed down deforestation and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 39% between 2005 and 2010. After Boyd penned his book, it has become apparent that in the last 2 years, a growing black market has been downright negligent of the law, and deforestation is on the rise again. But having legislation in place leaves less to be done and it makes it possible to arrest key people, as they did in February.

organicWasteNot to spoil it for those who have yet to read his book, rather than giving away Boyd’s examples of the green movement in his nearby city of Vancouver or in the even more progressive city of Amsterdam, I will look at what’s being done in my own city of St. Laurent in Quebec, Canada. Cognizant of the fact that 45% of waste materials in the city currently consists of green waste and food scraps, the city will embark on a waste-organic collection beginning this autumn. Instead of burying it in landfills where it will generate the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, the waste will be collected weekly by the city in large, freely-distributed aerated bins. The organic material, which will include all food, soiled paper, garden greens and ashes, will be sent to a processing plant to make compost. Compost, which prevents soil erosion and provides some fertilizer, will be not only used in city parks but freely distributed to citizens to encourage the maintenance of backyard organic gardens, which in turn have more beneficial results for both citizens and the environment.

The city has also joined the rest of the Montreal urban area in creating bike lanes to encourage the use of zero-emission vehicles as a means of transportation. One stretch between two major avenues has a solid barrier to ensure the safety of cyclists. Safety concerns often deter citizens from using their bikes on a daily basis. Such efforts will help keep Montreal on Copehagen’s top 20 list of bike-friendly cities of the world.


Our city library is a winner of Canada’s Green Building Award

The recently constructed public library , la Bibliotheque du Boisé, uses geothermal energy and passive solar heating exclusively to reduce its ecological footprint. Water is pumped underground to cool in the summer and warmed up in the winter for purposes of air-conditioning and heating, respectively. That means the former does not rely on any synthetic coolants. How many of us realized that although the 1987 Montreal protocol banned ozone-destroying CFCs, the substitutes still lead to global warming? Fortunately, one such substitute, tetrafluoroethane (C2F4H2), is being phased out and being replaced with HFO-1234yf. 

Instead of grass, the front of the library has local wildflowers, some of which are leguminous, to reduce the need for watering, mowing and fertilizing. The back is part of a small forest reserve, adjacent to a feeding ground for monarch butterflies. In case of heavy rain, water is collected by reservoirs to prevent runoff into storm drains. To construct the library, half the wood was certified by Forest Stewardship Council and 15% of the metal was from recycled sources.

Hopefully, this effort will inspire the province and country to adopt more stringent building codes. Such an approach is needed for all new construction projects, while citizens need incentives to upgrade older buildings to greener standards. The contagious efforts of David Boyd will help the vision materialize.


Choices in the Aftermath of Society’s Commitments

I was struck by the following blog entry from an inorganic chemistry enthusiast:

I couldn’t help reading another article on Fritz Haber today. Like every person, he had a personal life and he made choices. All I am interested in is his science, and I admire his science.

It’s a common attitude among students and professionals. Scientists’ biographies are perceived to contain irrelevant details that get in the way of learning science. Particularly, when the details are negative, an enthusiast will likely dismiss them because it conserves mental energy. But is it a responsible attitude?

The 2004 film about Fritz Haber written by Ragussis. The actor portraying Haber in the picture is Christian Berkel. source imdb

The 2004 film about Fritz Haber written by Ragussis. The actor portraying Haber in the picture is Christian Berkel. (source: imdb)

The biographical essay in question, Fritz Haber, the damned scientist, emphasizes not only Haber’s personal life and choices, but it examines his status, social context and the choices that his country and its opposing countries were making before, during and after World War I. We can neither ignore history and contemporary events nor pretend that science is a process independent of all other forces in society. It would be like trying to understand a forest without learning about the geochemistry and climate that partially determine its fate. It is very easy to quickly judge individuals, but their social context cannot go unexamined. In fact, in a previous blog, in comparing different attitudes of the Via Panispernia Boys towards the applications of nuclear science, I was guilty of overfocusing  on scientists’ decisions and not on the commitments of society and the contingencies that lead to new dilemmas for individuals.  Such an approach is counterproductive if we are to learn from the past.

For readers unfamiliar with Fritz Haber, he was a German-Jewish chemist born in 1868 and famous for a number of achievements. He sparked another stage in the “agricultural revolution” by laying the groundwork for the production of ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen. He recirculated the reactants,  found the right catalysts and controlled temperature and pressure. With the help of others such as engineer Carl Bosch, a large scale process was then developed, and the NH3 was converted to nitrates, which supplied an essential element to crops. Prior to that, countries were relying heavily on imports of South American guano, which contains uric acid (has nitrogen) as well as phosphates and potassium. Today, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the nitrogen atoms in the average human body derive from the Haber-Bosch process.

Some writers have unfairly used the negative consequences of large scale fertilizer-production as more ammunition against Haber’s character. But his contemporaries also had no idea that eutrophication could arise. And few predicted that 40 years later,  the Haber process would combine with other inventions, medical advances and attitudes to produce a sharp growth-spike in population.


from Wikipedia:

The Haber process is yet another tool, which despite good intentions at the onset, becomes more likely to have serious complications in a society devoted far more to blind economic growth than to setting up adaptive cycles.

But why was Haber harshly judged even by his contemporaries? Although the value of his discovery was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1919, many scientists did not show up for the presentation of the award presumably because of the role that Haber played in developing poison gas in the first World War. The committee officially dubbed it the “1918” prize, but it was actually handed out in 1919, after the armistice. According to W.A.E. Mc Bryde of the University of Waterloo, Haber’s use of chlorine as a weapon was not their focus.

In America a swarm of editorials and letters challenged the suitability of the award to Haber; the point was not the gas warfare, but the extended duration of the war made possible by the manufacture of nitric acid from synthetic ammonia.

If both reasons provided grounds for protesting the award,  those who condemned Haber’s role as “Doctor Death” ignored Grignard’s subsequent use of phosgene (COCl2 ) in the war. Grignard, also a Nobel Prize recipient for chemical synthesis that was unrelated to wartime exploits, was of course working for France. Their soldiers had been the first victims of the chlorine attack. But France had used either xylyl bromide(methylbenzyl bromide) or ethyl bromoacetate as a tear gas before Haber had proposed chlorine as a death agent. Both sides believed that the shocks of chemical warfare would end the war quickly (a cynic would say, to win it promptly). Of course, that did not happen. The perception of Haber as the callous scientist was reinforced by the fact that his wife was ardently opposed to his use of chemical weapons, and after Haber let his plan materialize on the battlefield, she fatally shot herself .

But as in many suicides, there were other factors at play. For instance, she was intellectually frustrated by being a PhD in chemistry but never being able to practice it. Her only contribution to the field involved translating Haber’s work into English. Contemporary women in Germany, regardless of their education-level, were still expected to serve exclusively as housewives. Yet Haber wasn’t callous to her depression. He had tried to get her a university teaching position, but she froze in front of her first class and gave up.

Let’s now examine the resentment towards Haber for making nitrates for ammunition. As Dunikowska and Turko point out, even before the alliances had brought Germany into the war, the government and most of industry had committed themselves to building a war machine, one that was opposed not only by humanists and social democrats but by some business people. Once engaged in militarization, inevitably, any country’s scientific research will be focused on the awful business of death, and scapegoating one individual is mostly an emotional response that won’t later serve as a preventative strategy. While so much hatred towards Haber and fellow Germans persisted after the end of World War I, the unfair Treaty of Versailles was signed. The exaggerated burden placed on the defeated country led to widespread instability, eventually facilitating the Nazis’ rise to power. Their new war machine soon led to an even more pernicious world war.

Haber’s response to the Treaty was to focus only on his country’s gargantuan debt. His simplistic approach was to mine the oceans for gold. Eventually after a costly 8-year project, he realized the concentration of gold in the sea was too low. For his unsuccessful hypothesis, he became vilified by his own country men. Professionally, however, he made important contributions in areas of pure science such as chemiluminescence and the formation of radicals in combustion. Unfortunately, some sloppy journalism has recently claimed that Haber when on to discover Zyklon B (an HCN-based gas used in concentration camps). In fact his institute developed it as a pesticide, and he was not its individual discoverer.

In April of 1933, three months after Hitler came to power, laws were passed, forbidding Jews to occupy government positions. Although still working for the government, Haber, was exempt from the law, despite being born Jewish. He and some of his colleagues were conscientious enough to oppose the law on principle, and later in the summer of that year, he left the country for London. There he continued to be scorned by scientists like Ernest Rutherford. Eventually he settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he soon died of a heart attack.

Haber made wrong ethical choices during the war, there’s little doubt. But he had plenty of company since the probability that anyone in such a position behaved likewise was highly increased when government and industry had already surrendered intellect, spirit, economy and technology to nationalism and militarism. It’s something to bear in mind when analyzing our current society. We have to deconstruct mechanisms that are committed to an illusive growth that that does not factor in social and environmental expenses. At the same time, we have to reinforce policies and strategies that value modesty and stability.

12 Principles of Green Chemistry and Green Solvents

In 1998, in a book entitled Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, Paul Anastas and John Warner put forth 12 principles of green chemistry. Currently, the American Chemical Society(ACS) includes them on their web site, linking each principle to a practical example.

  1. Prevention It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.

  2. Atom Economy Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.

  3. Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses Wherever practicable, synthetic methods should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.

  4. Designing Safer Chemicals Chemical products should be designed to affect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.

  5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used.

  6. Design for Energy Efficiency Energy requirements of chemical processes should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. If possible, synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

  7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

  8. Reduce Derivatives Unnecessary derivatization (use of blocking groups, protection/ deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.

  9. Catalysis Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

  10. Design for Degradation Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

  11. Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

  12. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

It’s reassuring to see a foundation for green chemistry laid out. But at the same time, we can’t help wonder how widespread the adherence to those principles actually is. One research center that is committed to making these 12 principles as feasible as possible is the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York in England. (The ACS site does not link any of the principles to them perhaps because the ACS showcases only industrial and academic applications from within the United States.) With regard to principle 5, the University of York investigates the use of both supercritical and liquid carbon dioxide as a solvent.

Recall CO2‘s phase diagram. Below its triple point(518 kPa at −56.6 °C) sublimation is possible—the familiar behavior of dry ice. Above that point, CO2 liquid is possible as the molecule goes through its three states with increasing temperature. But above its critical point of 304.25 K  7.39 MPa or about 7400 kPa, it forms a supercritical fluid.CO2phase
Supercritical CO(sCO2) which exists at high pressures, has interesting hybrid properties: it acts like a gas in having high diffusion rates but also resembles a liquid in density and dissolving power, both of which are variable with slight changes in pressure.

sCO2 is non-polar, but unlike many traditional non-polar solvents it is not toxic, leaves no traces (principle 10) and can be recovered. It can extract waxes, natural products and liquid crystals.BioSolvents Also greener than conventional solvents are biological ones such as glycerin, ethanol, limonene, 2-methyl-tetrahydrofuran and the degreaser ethyl lactate. These can be generated from food waste, revealing how compost is not the only useful product that can be derived from what most people perceive as trash.

When either sCO2 or biological solvents are used as medium for reactions, they are less likely to “poison” catalysts.   When catalysts accumulate impurities or get “poisoned” , they can no longer be used to speed up reactions. So by keeping catalysts “cleaner” with the use of green solvents, they perform syntheses with less waste. There are exceptions: Ziegler catalysts are poisoned by CO2 through the formation of CO. A more important issue is that the high pressures required to generate CO2 drive up the cost. Returning to advantages, some green-solvent-assistant syntheses are also more selective when only one chiral component is desired. In fact many enzymatic reactions can operate in supercritical fluids. Such properties of the solvents help us respect green chem principle 6.

Professor James Clark, the director of U of York’s Green Chem Centre, which is the largest of about 9 green centers in Britain, is connected with India’s IGCW (Industrial Green Chemistry World) whose core objective is

to drive industry implementation of green chemistry and engineering-based technologies to sustainably address priority and pressing environmental challenges of our chemical industry.

Although about 85% of petroleum is used for fuel, the 15% whose distillates are used for petrochemicals, plastics, lubricants, asphalt and other products accounts for about half of the industry’s profits. Renewable sources of energy have to replace petroleum as a fuel, but we also need a sustainable source of materials for organic compounds. For this reason, the center is hoping that biorefineries will soon find their way into large industry. If we again refer to the green principles, a biorefinery uses atom economy and produces less hazardous chemical syntheses; it designs safer and more biodegradable compounds, using better solvents and makes use of renewable feedstocks.