Skip to main content

The Right Chemistry

5 strategies to accelerate green chemistry

Here's a green chemistry agenda for business leaders, advocates, researchers and policymakers alike.

Two years ago, the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) established as its mission the mainstreaming of green chemistry, a point in time where all chemistry — including chemistry and engineering research, education and policy — is considered "green."

It set about to answer the following questions:

  • What can be done to make all chemistry green chemistry? 
  • What are the current barriers and drivers?
  • What partnerships will have to be built, policies put in place, educational needs met and investments made?
  • What role should the GC3 take?

Ninety percent of manufactured goods are in some way linked to the chemical industry. Yet, despite its environmental, public health and economic benefits, green chemistry is still only a small part of the chemical enterprise.

To understand why this is the case and how green chemistry can be accelerated, the GC3 performed literature reviews; conducted a survey of its members; gathered input at its annual Innovators' Roundtable; and sponsored original published research on barriers to adoption, making the business case and possible metrics that can measure success. An April 2015 GreenBiz article described some findings from this process. 

The GC3 recently released its Agenda to Mainstream Green Chemistrywhich makes the case for green chemistry, describes barriers and drivers and identifies strategies and actions needed to make green chemistry standard practice.

The purpose of the agenda is to identify actions that in the short term will: 

  • Scale innovation in green chemistry.
  • Elevate the importance of green chemistry in education and research.
  • Yield smart policies that support green chemistry markets, research and innovation.

The agenda provides information and direction for all enablers of green chemistry: business leaders working within their companies and supply chains; educators and researchers training the workforce of tomorrow; advocates who educate the public about toxic hazards; and policymakers who can create an environment for green chemistry innovation.

Defining green chemistry

Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances throughout their lifecycles: design; manufacture; use; and end of life.

Green chemistry builds on conventional chemistry and engineering by applying 12 fundamental principles that guide the molecular design of sustainable chemical products and processes. Adhering to these principles prevents pollution and waste, leads to synthesis of chemicals in less hazardous and more efficient ways, promotes the use of renewable feedstocks and leads to the design of safer chemicals.

Green chemistry incorporates every element of business, from product design to feedstock selection through manufacturing to finished products, including the ways that companies manage their businesses and engage their customers throughout the supply chain.

While green chemistry is practiced primarily at the chemical discovery, development and formulation levels, product developers, manufacturers, brands and retailers all play an important role in its implementation. They do this by changing design specifications, sourcing materials and products that incorporate green chemistry practices, changing manufacturing practices to substitute or reduce the use of hazardous chemicals and developing and implementing policies that restrict chemicals of concern in the products they source, make or sell.

Five strategies

The agenda identifies five strategies as central to accelerating innovation in and adoption of green chemistry. These strategies are to:

1. Enhance market dynamics by continuing to build a comprehensive, ongoing understanding of green chemistry enablers, market drivers and obstacles. Such information includes: 

  • Specific and varied barriers faced by companies throughout the value chain.
  • Key leverage points for green chemistry.
  • How demand can be built for green chemistry solutions.
  • Models to reduce the high cost of scaling up and to share market and other risks.
  • Critical green chemistry needs or priority challenges to be solved.
  • Why certain green chemistry chemicals, materials and finished products have succeeded or failed in the marketplace.
  • How to fulfill the workforce needs of green chemistry employers. 

2. Support smart policies by designing and advocating for innovative state and federal policies that increase the supply of and demand for green chemistry solutions.  Among the components of smart policies are those that:

  • Create or support green chemistry research or manufacturing centers.
  • Offer funding, incentives and/or prizes for green chemistry research and commercialization.
  • Streamline permitting for green chemistry chemical and product manufacturers.
  • Increase education and job training in green chemistry.
  • Help market U.S. green chemistry innovations to overseas markets.
  • Create regulatory frameworks that help reduce uncertainty for industry.

3. Foster collaboration by facilitating the flow of information about green chemistry solutions among suppliers and product makers, and assembling partnerships to tackle priority challenges. Collaborations should:

  • Create opportunities for companies with chemistry challenges to connect with those who can develop green chemistry solutions.
  • Improve information flow (such as about chemicals and demand) up and down the supply chain.
  • Identify opportunities and deploy pre-competitive strategies to jointly develop design criteria and green chemistry solutions.
  • Foster alignment within supply chains for new technologies.
  • Increase the teaching of green chemistry and hiring of workers with green chemistry expertise.
  • Help integrate green chemistry and green engineering best practices into the fabric of a firm's culture.

4. Inform the marketplace by disseminating information about green chemistry business, economic and health benefits, as well as opportunities and funding. Such information should include: 

  • Available state and federal funding and location incentives.
  • Quantitative data on benefits of green chemistry to businesses, public health and the environment.
  • Workforce needs of green chemistry employers.
  • Green chemistry alternatives for specific chemical functions.
  • Information on the cost to society of accidents and incidents from hazardous chemicals use.

5. Track progress by improving green chemistry metrics and periodically gathering and reporting data on progress. These metrics should: 

  • Measure green chemistry progress at firm, industry and economy levels.
  • Build on existing, effective economic and sustainability tools and criteria.
  • Set benchmarks that lead to more benign chemistries, materials, products and processes.
  • Help to understand and build the business and policy cases for green chemistry, such as quantifying business risk from conventional chemistry, revenues, job growth, economic benefits and trends in capital flows.
  • Be periodically evaluated for their effectiveness and usefulness.

Taking action

The Agenda to Mainstream Green Chemistry can be used by all practitioners and enablers of green chemistry to determine effective actions they will take that will best support green chemistry innovation and adoption. It specifies six actions that the GC3 itself will take over the next two years to make green chemistry mainstream practice in the chemical industry.

Among them are convening a national summit on green chemistry research and education that brings together government and academic institutions to create a new generation of trained experts in green chemistry; building model supply-chain partnerships to scale green chemistry solutions for chemical uses of concern; and creating educational, information and networking tools for innovators to speed the development of green chemistry solutions.

More on this topic