Below is a blog post by Amy S. Cannon, Executive Director of Beyond Benign in preparation for the PSI Networking Conference Call, “Green Chemistry 101: Safer Chemicals Mean Safer Product,” on Tuesday, Nov. 9 (2:00-3:30 p.m. EST). This blog discusses the basics of green chemistry and why we need it. Beyond Benign is, like the Warner Babcock Institute, driven by the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, and seeks to make products safer and non-toxic across their life-cycle. We will continue this discussion on our networking call. Please join us for the dialogue.
Green chemistry: A key component to making sustainable, non-toxic products
Amy S. Cannon, Executive Director, Beyond Benign
What is green chemistry? Why and how does it relate to you? Green chemistry is the design of products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is perhaps a bit more difficult than it sounds. However, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it is not worth doing. Green chemistry focuses on the invention and design stage of a product’s life-cycle. The idea is that if we can infuse chemists with the knowledge of toxicity and mechanisms of environmental harm, then chemists will be able to use that knowledge to create safe, non-toxic products in a non-hazardous manner.
A question you might ask is, “So you mean chemists haven’t always deliberately tried to make safe products?” Well, the answer to this is, “No, we haven’t.” Why do chemists and scientists not design products and processes to be safe from the beginning? To put the answer simply – we just are not taught how to do it. It is not in our vocabulary or in our knowledge base.
If you study chemistry at any level, you will most likely never take a course that has anything to do with the environment. You will not take a course on toxicology, the very science with the knowledge of understanding the hazards associated with chemicals. You will not take a course on environmental fate and transport to understand the ecological cycles in which we function. Traditionally, this knowledge has been left for the environmental scientists to learn about and deal with the waste and hazards that chemists create in the design and manufacture of products. Green chemistry seeks to change this by teaching chemists to understand environmental science and toxicology. The chemists and design scientists can have the greatest impact on pollution prevention, reducing waste and hazards.
To help explain this, let’s think about how products are made.
There are many stages to a product’s life-cycle. In order to create safe, sustainable products there are a number of people that need to be involved. Chemicals policy makers focus on the implementation of the best suitable alternatives that are currently available. The policy makers are essential in ensuring that the products that are on the shelf are as safe as possible. Green chemists focus on the demand side of the product life-cycle. The very moment a chemist begins to plan how they will create and develop a new product or redesign an existing product, they are making decisions that will have impact down stream. If we can teach chemists to design products and processes in a sustainable, non-toxic manner, then the roles of the engineer and the chemicals policy maker become much easier.
For too long, environmental issues of hazards and toxicology have been absent from the education of scientists. It is time to bring this knowledge back into the chemist’s curriculum so that a chemist is able to create safe, non-toxic products and processes each time they sit down to do so. Can you imagine a future where all products are designed to be safe at conception? This would make our purchasing much more simplified and we would no longer have to scour the literature to determine which skin-care product is the least hazardous or which cleaners will be safe to use within our homes.
As green chemists, we are working towards making this future happen. Industries are climbing on board as they find out about the economic benefits of green chemistry. Governments are beginning to implement legislation that is supportive of green chemistry efforts, recognizing that economic development and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. Developing nations are recognizing the benefit of green chemistry and working with local, bio-based resources. And, perhaps most importantly, students are signing up in droves for classes and programs where they can learn how to do chemistry in a way that does not have to harm the earth or human health. It is, after all, the next generation that will lead the path toward building a sustainable world with safe, non-toxic, effective products. And, it is for them and their future that we need to support these efforts. Together we can make the world a safer place.