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The University of California, Berkeley has been awarded a $334,275 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expand its Greener Solutions Project, aiming to reduce hazardous chemicals in commercial products.

Agency officials this week announced the selection of the university, along with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, to receive a total of more than $1 million in three pollution prevention grants funded by President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“EPA for many years has recognized that developing cleaner and safer ways to do things is really the best way to do it,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe during a Tuesday media event. “It’s important to provide funding for organizations like this one and others to harness the ideas and the energy of the faculty and generations of young, excited scientists that want to make a difference in their communities.”

The Greener Solutions Project was initiated by the Berkeley Center of Green Chemistry, which is primarily a project-based class that partners graduate students with companies and organizations interested in adopting more sustainable chemistry. During previous classes in the group’s 12-year history, students have worked with industry partners to identify alternatives to harmful chemicals in products such as tires, floor polish and frozen food packaging.

The Berkeley Center of Green Chemistry will launch an undergraduate course next spring to study the effects of harmful chemicals in hair products, particularly those that have been marketed to Black women. (Photo via Freepik)

The EPA grant will support the center in launching a new undergraduate course with approximately 40 students, starting in spring 2023. Students will primarily look into the challenge of hazardous chemicals in hair products and be paired with cosmetics companies, including L’Oréal and COTY.

The new course will take a close look at how harmful hair products have specifically targeted Black women, which aligns with the grant’s intention to encourage projects promoting safer products in underserved communities.

“The industry partner walks away with customized, actionable recommendations for making their product safer for consumers and the environment, while launching a new generation of students thinking critically about safer materials innovation and pollution prevention.” said Megan Arnett, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry.

Previous Greener Solutions graduates have become coaches at the program, teachers in chemistry and civil engineering and consultants at tech companies.

Life-changing project

William Hart-Cooper, the center’s associate director and a program graduate, joined the Greener Solutions course in the last year of his chemistry Ph.D. in 2015.

“It really changed my life,” Hart-Cooper said. “I was able to finally connect sort of my passion for the environment with the skills that I’ve been developing.”

His involvement in the project has led him to his current role as a research chemist at the Bioproducts Research Unit at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, creating sustainable solutions for food systems.

Arnett hoped the new undergrad course would attract students with various backgrounds and ignite their interest in green chemistry.

The current EPA grants are the first of five pollution prevention grant programs over the next five years that will be funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Other upcoming programs will encourage products, purchasing or supply chains that are more environmentally preferable.