Green Chemistry: sustainability through innovation
Green Chemistry was introduced into the world by EPA. What began as a blueprint for designing safer chemical products and processes has, after two decades, not only transformed the field of chemistry but also given us the tools to build a sustainable future. It was EPA’s scientific leadership that guided the way.
The world’s first green chemistry research solicitation: Alternative Synthetic Pathways for Pollution Prevention was released by EPA in 1991 and it was just the beginning. Scores of articles, books like Benign by Design, the first-ever research symposium on green chemistry at the American Chemical Society, and numerous partnerships and collaborations emerged from the collection of excellent research in EPA’s fledgling green chemistry program. The growing body of work suggested that hazard and toxicity do not have to be elements of our products and processes. Instead, they are unintended “design flaws” that can largely be avoided with thoughtful molecular design—a revolutionary concept.
In 1995, when President Clinton called for proposals on ways to reinvent government, EPA’s proposal to create the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards was a game-changing winner. Now 16 years strong, the Awards recognize innovative green chemistry solutions for pollution prevention. At its heart, the Challenge Awards program is about demonstrating environmental and economic synergies; it’s about belying the myth that a healthy environment and a strong economy are incompatible; it’s about showing what’s possible with green chemistry. On average, winning technologies have eliminated nearly 200 million pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents, saved 21 billion gallons of water and eliminated 57 million pounds of atmospheric carbon dioxide releases every year. The program has shown that regulation is not the only way to address our most pressing environmental challenges and that innovative design can help us meet important economic and environmental goals simultaneously.
Today, EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) continues to engage in excellent, innovative, green chemistry research. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the core pillars of ORD’s work: sustainability, integrated transdisiplinary research, and innovation. Green chemistry embraces and exemplifies these themes by relying on systems thinking, a solutions-orientation, and innovative design. By advancing green chemistry research and incorporating its principles into all that we do, we are moving ahead on ORD’s Path Forward toward sustainability.
There is no doubt that EPA will continue to pursue excellent work in the field of green chemistry. But perhaps more importantly, all research involving chemistry and engineering funded by this Agency will be increasingly expected to incorporate the principles of green chemistry into the fabric of its design. As we move ahead, it must become part of all that we do.
What began at EPA as a small, singular effort—the only research program of its kind—has grown near-exponentially into a collective endeavor of the worldwide scientific community. There are now green chemistry research networks in more than 30 countries on every settled continent, and at least four international scientific journals devoted to the topic. I am astounded by the brilliance, creativity, and leadership that has cultivated the field and allowed it to flourish.
Twenty years later, I am honored to be back at the Agency that brought green chemistry to life. I am humbled by the field’s progress and incredible scientific advances over the course of two decades and only more deeply humbled by the breakthroughs waiting over the horizon and the scientific discoveries yet to be made.
Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D
Office of Research and Development