Sustainability through innovation
Science Matters recently sat down with EPA Assistant Administrator Dr. Paul T. Anastas, widely known as the Father of Green Chemistry, to talk about green chemistry.
SCIENCE MATTERS (SM): Greetings, and thanks for making the time to meet with us today. Why don’t we start at the beginning: how do you define “green chemistry”?
PAUL ANASTAS: Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. It’s about as fundamental an approach to sustainability as you can get.
SCIENCE MATTERS: What are some of the benefits?
PAUL ANASTAS: Green chemistry demonstrates that you can actually attain all of the goals that you set out for human health and the environment at the same time as you meet your economic goals. You can make sustainability profitable. For too long there’s been this myth that you can’t have economic benefit and environmental benefit at the same time. Green chemistry is belying that myth every day.
SCIENCE MATTERS: How has green chemistry already impacted, let’s say, business?
PAUL ANASTAS: When we look at the impact that green chemistry has had over the past 20 years, it’s astounding to see that virtually every industry sector—from the traditional chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, materials, energy, automotive, electronics, and on and on—have been impacted by green chemistry.
Award-winning technologies in the United States, Europe, Asia and beyond are using green chemistry, not because there’s a law or regulation that says “thou shalt use green chemistry to meet your environmental goals,” but because companies are realizing that through using green chemistry they can increase their competitiveness, they can increase their profitability, they can come up with innovative, new products at the same time as meeting their environmental and human health goals.
SCIENCE MATTERS: How is green chemistry revolutionary?
PAUL ANASTAS: For 150 years or more, chemists, molecular scientists — the molecular architects — have been using their considerable knowledge and skills to develop ways to put together new molecules. And they’ve done it in a way that has achieved astounding things. Life-saving drugs that improve quality-of-life, the reason we’re able to have food production at the rate that we have it is because of chemistry.
Now with all of those accomplishments, there’s been one piece that’s kind of been missing, and that piece is ensuring that, while we achieve those goals, we also don’t cause harm to human health or the environment.
That’s what green chemistry is all about. It’s closing the circle, saying, “We’re going to perform these miraculous feats of science and technology and we’re going to do it in a way that is sustainable, that is good for this generation and future generations.”
SCIENCE MATTERS: Across the variety of research happening in green chemistry — within the private sector, universities and government — what role does EPA play?
PAUL ANASTAS: At its best, EPA is a catalyst. The Agency helps others see what’s possible, enables others to pursue their goals, provides the information and insight to allow innovation and invention to bloom.
In some cases it is through research grant funding, in others it is sharing and making accessible data, and in some cases it’s doing the innovative research here at one of EPA’s own labs or providing a venue to demonstrate new technologies. When EPA engages with our partners—in the private sector, from colleges and universities, from environmental groups and the public in general—it raises the awareness of what’s possible and removes barriers that would otherwise impede the implementation of new technologies and new innovations. That’s when EPA is at its best.
SCIENCE MATTERS: How does Green Chemistry support an overall vision for advancing sustainability?
PAUL ANASTAS: The classic definition of sustainability is meeting the needs of the current generation while preserving the ability of future generations to meet their needs. What that means for us is recognizing that we need to take care of the things that we can’t live without, and we need to take care of them forever.
Designing tomorrow is the challenge that we all face. As we seek to design tomorrow, we need to recognize that it’s not good enough to be just a little bit less bad, a little bit less polluting, having our water be a little bit less contaminated.
SCIENCE MATTERS: What is the future of green chemistry?
PAUL ANASTAS: The only thing more exciting than the achievements of green chemistry so far is the future power and potential of green chemistry. For every product that has been reinvented using the principles of green chemistry, there are perhaps tens or hundreds of products that have yet to be reinvented. And so, when we start thinking about the kind of transformative innovations that are possible, the kind of transformative innovations that true sustainability requires, that’s where green chemistry’s future lies; thinking beyond incremental improvement into transformative, disruptive innovations that are real game changers.