Infusing Sustainability Into the EPA's Mission

For Paul Anastas, assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, innovation trumps incremental improvements.

While the EPA has been maintaining its role of, well, environmental protection, a more important aspect it's taken on has been to drive innovation, both within its ranks and through partnerships with the business, academic and environmental communities.

Anastas, one of the two fathers of green chemistry, founded the EPA's Green Chemistry Program along with John Warner, with whom he co-wrote "Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice."

State of Green BusinessOne major theme in the agency, he said, is to approach problems with sustainability and innovation in mind. "How do we rethink what it is we're trying to accomplish?" he said during a State of Green Business Forum interview with GreenBiz.com executive editor Joel Makower.

Take decaf coffee. One of the solvents traditionally used to strip caffeine from coffee beans was methylene chloride, a carcinogen linked to other heath problems. Many decaffeinators have switched away form it to supercritical (liquid) carbon dioxide, which is innocuous and utilizes CO2 productively. And research is now looking at how to grow coffee beans without any caffeine in them to begin with.

Anastas said that infusing sustainability into the EPA has not been difficult, mainly because the agency's 18,000 employees are unified by the EPA's mission. "There is tremendous energy across the agency for doing this," he said.

In addition, the EPA's Science Policy Council and the White House's National Science and Technology Council have made sustainability a key focus as they deal with various regulatory issues and bring together different government agencies.

While hundreds of companies are now involved in bringing sustainable design to their products and processes, what's even better news, he said, is that what is being done represents only about 1 percent of the potential, meaning there is plenty more than can be done and discovered.

Through various programs, the EPA is involved in conversations with a wide range of companies about their green chemistry efforts. "Having an understanding of the problems is often crucial to how you approach solutions," Anastas said. "We have insights, we have predictability on regulatory agendas."

And the EPA is always looking to connect with more companies, to hear what they're working on and what issues they are facing, and Anastas invited any interested business to contact the EPA.

Wrapping up the interview, Anastas cautioned against against creating goals and programs based solely on metrics, warning that metrics can lead companies and groups to focus on easily-quantifiable issues instead of more important, but less-easily-measured, issues like equity, wellness and health.

A short clip of the interview is below; you can watch the full interview online from GreenBiz.com.

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.