Can Green Chemistry Sustain Us? A Look at Paul Anastas’ New Industrial WorldMay 14, 2013
By Cyrus Philbrick
I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dr. Paul Anastas at the Town Hall in Seattle. Anastas’ talk, “Designing a Sustainable Tomorrow,” concerned placing chemistry within a larger framework of sustainability. Those familiar with Anastas know that this goal has consumed much of his working life. The words of the so-called “father of green chemistry” therefore deserve summarizing, and a second look. More manufacturing businesses, designers, and even regulators should listen to what Anastas has to say.
Anastas began his talk by describing how prevailing myths about chemicals shackle us to destructive industrial habits. Most of us, for example, automatically equate the word “chemical” with toxicity. As a result we tend to think that safe chemicals don’t function as well as harmful ones. We believe progress and comfort require hazardous collateral.
Such a relationship to chemicals has put tremendous strains on our environmental and public health. Anastas gave a slew of examples highlighting the perversity of our manufacturing processes and our attempts to regulate these processes. For example: we don’t know the health consequences of many of the thousands of substances used in manufacturing, nevermind how these chemicals act in synergy; or how about that a huge portion of our chemicals are made from petroleum stock, a polluting and non-renewable resource; or that in an average manufacturing process, 90% of inputs become waste, while only 10% get used in the actual product.
“We got here with noble goals and exciting technologies,” Anastas said. But in many cases, “we try to do the right thing the wrong way.” In looking at environmental issues as siloed or disconnected from one another, we often solve one problem while creating another. We purify water with acutely lethal substances like chlorine. We make photovoltaics out of rare and toxic metals. We make compact fluorescent bulbs that rely on mercury, a known neurotoxin that presents hazards to manufacturers, consumers, and disposers.
“We can do better,” Anastas insisted. Lighting our way out of our industrial quagmire, Anastas suggests, is a new level of awareness in systems thinking that has already begun. We are in the midst of re-thinking how we as humans relate to a natural world made up of energy and matter. Anastas believes that green chemistry has an integral role to play in this process, and even more so in the designing of a new industrial world.
Green chemistry is defined by the 12 principles that Anastas helped create, but at its core, Asastas said, it means: “the design of products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.” Its goal is not to make things less bad – as is too often the case with reactive regulations and incremental industrial changes – but to design things to be good. Anastas believes that green chemistry should serve as a principle agent in “designing systemic sustainability.”
Green chemistry principles can help us move from what Anastas calls “circumstantial” design to “intrinsic” design. Instead of taking a reactive or protective approach to environmental and health problems, we should take a proactive one. We should “design out the hazard” by creating products and systems that are inherently safer and less toxic throughout their lifecycle.
Our guides to ideal design are all around us, in the physics and chemistry of nature. Anastas compared nature’s design solutions to a few of our current industrial processes. For example, he suggested, look at the way the common blue muscle (Mytilus edulis) makes adhesives compared to the way the chemical industry does it. “The mussel uses locally available starting materials,” Anastas said. “It uses a non-toxic, dilute solution, at room temperature and pressure. And it does it underwater, just to show off.”
Anastas ended by saying that innovative businesses will not sacrifice function or profit by designing more sustainable products or systems. In addition to being better for our health, such designs will boost economic performance. Because we all share the same economy and environment, better design means better welfare for all.
But, Anastas emphasized, designing new products and systems will not follow linearly from our current industrial system. “We need transformative innovation and disruptive thinking,” he said. He suggested that we as an industrial society are acting insanely if we expect new results while continuing to manufacture and regulate in the same reactive way, by making substances a little bit more energy efficient or less toxic. “Squeezing out efficiencies” will not change the shape of our world. Radically better design will.
Many resources exist for businesses looking to take advantage of the economic and environmental opportunities provided by green chemistry. For example, PPRC is a member of the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3), which aims to “support implementation of green chemistry and safer chemicals and products throughout supply chains.” The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) has also achieved buy-in from over 50 different manufacturing associations to its voluntary Responsible Care initiative. Responsible Care aims for continuous improvement of the industry’s health, safety, and environmental performance.
An increasing number of businesses and manufacturers are incorporating green chemistry principles into product and process design. Both start-ups and major industries are creating novel materials from the ground-up, using safe, renewable, and environmentally friendly materials throughout production. Cleaning-product manufacturer Method, for example, developed a new line of cleaners and detergents that use high-efficiency solvents made from waste wood trimmings and corn-stalks.
But change has come more slowly for bulk-chemical manufacturers, or industries that produce much larger volumes of product. These industries depend on expensive and large-scale machinery optimized for cost, not health. To achieve the transformative changes that Anastas envisions will require comprehensive restructuring of production processes. It will require shifts in attitude as well as game-changing technical innovation. For example, an unanswered chemical challenge is how to make bulk chemicals from renewable feedstock rather than from crude oil.
Any ideas out there?
- Cyrus Philbrick