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Chemistry that's less toxic, and profitable too

Green chemistry at the Warner Babcock Institute.

TEXT OF STORY

Jeremy Hobson: Have you heard of the term "green chemistry?" It's been around for a couple decades, and it's all about making the stuff we use everyday less toxic, and less wasteful.

Well now, as Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, one of green chemistry's founders is out to prove you can make money with it too.


Sarah Gardner: John Warner was a top industrial chemist when his 2-year-old son died from a rare birth defect.

John Warner: Lying awake at night the evening of my son's funeral, staring at the ceiling asking myself, what if something I touched caused my son's disease? What if something that I got an award for ultimately caused my son's death?

Warner and his friend Paul Anastas developed green chemistry in the '90s. Their idea was that industrial processes don't have to be bad for humans and the environment. They could be "benign by design," so to speak. Warner preached that gospel for years as a chemistry professor. Now he's trying to prove green chemistry can work in the real world.

Warner: And so, in this lab over here, we have people working on large object ceramics.

Ceramics as in bathroom fixtures. Warner now heads a small start-up company north of Boston called the Warner Babcock Institute. It helps its clients -- from drug companies to cosmetic firms -- by coming up with non-toxic, more energy efficient, and less wasteful ways to make their products. And those clients want to save money by doing it. Warner says that's possible. After all, toxicity carries a pretty high price tag.

Warner: Look at the amount of money we spend in hazardous waste, look at the amount of money in storage, look at the money in transport. If you have a hazardous material, it just costs so much money.

Warner doesn't divulge his client list or revenues, but says the company has worked with 18 clients so far and is "cash-positive." Among their successes: reducing the amount of chemical waste from making a Parkinson's disease drug, and figuring out a way to use less energy in making solar panels. Oh, and there's the hair dye that's less toxic. A now brown-haired Warner says he's been the lab guinea pig on that one.

Warner: This is a chemistry experiment. This isn't a product yet. But obviously, it's on my head.

In Wilmington, Mass., I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.
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