Green Chemistry: Protecting Our Planet and Ourselves

Sustainability Issue

By Mike Howie

Chemistry has given our world unprecedented scientific advances. From plastics to fuel, fertilizers, medicine, and more, its fruits pervade daily life. But, at the same time, chemistry has taken a toll on our health and our planet: Toxic waste. Polluted air and water. Hazardous working environments. And we don’t need to ingest these chemicals to feel their negative effects. Phthalates, which can be found in paper, backpacks, and vinyl tile, have been linked to learning disabilities, loss of IQ, and behavioral issues in children. But our days of worrying over invisible chemical ingredients may be coming to an end thanks to green chemistry.

Green chemistry is promoted in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which coined the term in 1990 after the Pollution Prevention Act made prevention rather than control the preferred strategy for dealing with environmental pollution. On its website, it explains that green chemistry “is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.” And this concept applies to the entire life cycle of a product, from design and manufacture to use and disposal.

To that end, green chemistry calls on chemists from every discipline to examine their work and reduce the negative impacts that chemical products and processes can have on human health and the environment, ultimately aiming to prevent pollution at the molecular level. A difficult goal to be sure, so the EPA dissects it into 12 principles:

  1. Prevent waste
  2. Maximize atom economy
  3. Design less hazardous chemical synthesis
  4. Design safer chemicals and products
  5. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions
  6. Increase energy efficiency
  7. Use renewable feedstocks
  8. Avoid chemical derivatives
  9. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents
  10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use
  11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution
  12. Minimize the potential for accidents

Green chemistry is good for not only life on Earth but also business, as we’ve seen in its successful application. Ibuprofen was once produced in a six-step process that wasted 60 percent of the weight of all the atoms in the ingredients. But in the 1990s chemists developed a three-step process to develop ibuprofen with 77 to 99 percent atom economy, making production not only more environmentally friendly, but also easier.

Similarly, science and technology company Amyris engineered a yeast that converts sugars into farnesene, a hydrocarbon that can be turned into a renewable alternative to petroleum diesel that reduces emissions and contains no sulfur or particulates — all while performing better in low temperatures.

The advantages of green chemistry are clear. For chemists and the companies at which they work, it provides safer workflows with less exposure to hazardous chemicals and potential accidents while reducing waste and helping to enhance sales with products labeled as safer for the environment. For consumers, it provides cleaner air, food, and water while reducing exposure to toxic chemicals that work as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. And for the environment, it lowers the potential for ozone depletion, global warming, and smog formation while reducing the use of landfills. These are just a few of the benefits.

Green chemistry is on the rise, with prominent institutions like Yale University and the American Chemical Society adopting and promoting its philosophy. It is an evolution of chemistry that has and will continue to lead to scientific innovations that make life better for us all.