Dow's 4 pillars of sustainable chemistry and a green economy

Last year, world population surpassed 7 billion, and over the next four decades, it is expected to grow by 2 billion more. The impact this will have on the planet and society can be staggering -- increasing demand for material goods, growing strains on natural resources and energy supplies and more waste generated. To meet these needs, we will need more sustainable products and infrastructure -- in short, a more sustainable economy.

Recently, I participated in a dialogue on the building blocks of a sustainable economy at the GLOBE 2012 conference in Vancouver, and my role was to discuss how sustainable chemistry can build a more sustainable economy.

In the chemical industry, we have "chemical building blocks," which are basic chemicals from which many others can be made. With more than 95 percent of all manufactured goods relying on chemistry in their value chain, integrating sustainability and green chemistry concepts -- "sustainable chemistry" -- as a building block is a vitally important part of building a more sustainable economy.

Green chemistry is a set of principles to design, but sustainable chemistry looks beyond only a science. It is a catalyst for change, an innovative approach to problem-solving and a long-term solution to global sustainability challenges.

What do I mean by sustainable chemistry? At Dow, we embrace green chemistry principles and apply them across four pillars:

  • Holistic Design: Approaching a product from a "cradle-to-cradle" vantage point, assessing environmental impacts from production, to use, and disposal or reuse.
  • Atom Economy: Generating chemical processes where the amount of starting materials equals the amount of all products generated, and no atom is wasted.
  • Energy Footprint: Minimizing the amount of energy a product requires throughout its lifecycle.
  • Reduced Hazard: Designing safety into products and processes that help protect human health and the environment.

Applying the four pillars of sustainable chemistry to enable a more sustainable economy takes collaboration. Today, there are unlimited options for companies to come together to promote a more sustainable future. Through collaboration, companies, governments and NGOs can help further applications of green chemistry across each of these four pillars.

At Dow, we've taken advantage of opportunities to work towards a more sustainable future with other organizations. Technologies emerging from collaboration and our approach to sustainable chemistry include: roofing shingles with integrated photovoltaics that make harnessing the power of the sun affordable; advanced lithium-ion batteries for improved hybrid and electric vehicle efficiency; corn seed traits that increase crop productivity; and a joint venture with Mitsui in Brazil to make plastics from sugar cane.

Building up powerful collaborations with emerging leaders are fundamental to expanding green chemistry's impacts. In March, Dow expanded its Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award program, more than doubling the number of schools participating around the world. The program drives collaboration and advancement in social and environmental responsibility by inspiring and rewarding students who develop sustainable solutions.

We've made progress on developing the building blocks for a sustainable economy. Collective and collaborative human ingenuity will continue to utilize science to overcome what sometimes looks like a dire environmental situation. Too often, people draw a straight line from the problems we face today to the negative impacts they will have tomorrow -- depleted natural resources, compromised living conditions due to ecosystem degradation and other doom and gloom scenarios.

But scientists and organizations around the world need to collaborate to better understand what the buildings blocks of a sustainable economy are, and how we can work together to put them in place. Ultimately, chemistry and collaboration – and people – have the power to bend that straight line to a more positive point in the future, where nature and therefore human prosperity are in balance.

Green chemistry photo via Shutterstock.