A Formula for Building a Green Chemistry Future

The U.S. government, through its decade-long $12 billion investment in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, has helped throw nanomaterial innovation into overdrive. By comparison, green chemistry programs are still running in first gear.

For example, Congress has failed repeatedly since 2004 to enact a much smaller “Green Chemistry Research and Development Program Act.”

The green chemistry legislation would have authorized a $165 million, three-year program to underwrite green chemistry innovations, collect and disseminate pertinent information, and systematically identify barriers to the commercialization of green chemistry.

Other than the U.S. EPA’s modest green chemistry and Design for Environment efforts and some research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. federal government has not invested in green chemistry in a meaningfully focused manner.

This post, Part 1 of a four-part series, defines and offers an ambitious vision for green chemistry in the United States and describes metrics for measuring progress. Parts 2, 3, and 4 sketch a game plan for realizing the vision and identify green chemistry and related biomimicry initiatives representative of the types of activities that should be scaled up and replicated. Green chemistry and biomimicry are powerful tools for reducing the toxic, energy and waste components of companies’ environmental footprint.

The case for increased, organized, public and private sector investment in green chemistry is compelling, especially to benefit consumer-facing companies and their suppliers.

In reducing their toxic footprint -- the toxicity associated with chemicals used and generated in products across their lifecycle -- companies can:

  • Address rising consumer concerns about exposures to toxic chemicals in their daily lives,
  • Lower the overhead costs of government-required reporting on regulated hazardous wastes,
  • Contribute to employee health,
  • Reduce reputational, financial and litigation risks stemming from exposes of acute and chronic poisonings associated with their manufacturing supply chain and disposal of their products, and
  • Develop a leadership position in international markets such as the European Union where regulation of chemicals in consumer products has outpaced national regulation in the United States.

Manufacturers can realize enormous savings from using green chemicals and chemical processes that require less energy and generate less waste. Inherently safer chemicals and processes also reduce risks of bulk transportation and industrial site accidents and, in this post 9/11 world, lower risks from terrorist strikes.

What’s needed is an aspirational vision and game plan for driving the market for green chemistry, integrating both public and private sector efforts.

Here’s a vision that offers four Big Hairy Audacious Goals for the year 2030:

  • For multi-line retailers and their suppliers: Toxicity warning labels are not needed for products in Walmart, Target, Costco and other multi-line retail stores.
  • For upstream chemical producers and manufacturers: Chemical innovations are driven primarily by biomimicry -- companies have learned from nature how to produce new materials in an energy-efficient way without relying on high temperatures and pressures and with de minimus waste generation. In common industrial and consumer applications, new materials based on sustainably sourced biomaterials have replaced petroleum-based petrochemicals, particularly those substances of especially high concern such as endocrine disruptors, persistent, bioaccumulative toxicants and carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants.
  • For food processing and agricultural supply chains: Bio-based integrated pest management, reduced risk pesticides, and new agricultural varieties have replaced the dominant, chemical-intensive agricultural production model of the last several decades.
  • And for society as a whole: “Green” has been removed from “green chemistry” -- green chemistry principles and methods have been mainstreamed and are synonymous with chemistry, so much so that “benign” rather than “toxic” most commonly characterizes the word “chemical.”

Next Page: So what exactly is green chemistry?