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Green Chemistry – Chemistry Done Right

2009 June 23

While I was in graduate school, I ran into someone collecting signatures in protest of the nearby construction of a hazardous waste incinerator. When I asked him what should be done with the hazardous waste, he said “They just shouldn’t make it.” I dismissed him as oversimplifying a complex situation—that chemicals are a vital part of our lives and we just can’t not have the industry. I suspected his real motives were that he didn’t want it near to where he lived. However, after I began working at EPA and learned about green chemistry, I realized that, whatever his motives, he was essentially right. To an ever-increasing extent, we’re discovering that we can have a vital, innovative, competitive chemicals industry with less—or even no hazardous waste.

image of green chemistry logoThis year marks my 12th year working with EPA’s Green Chemistry Program and those dozen years have clearly shown me how effective green chemistry can be in preventing pollution.

Green chemistry is “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.” It applies to what chemists make, what they make it from, and how they make it. It encourages scientists to think as broadly as possible about the potential impacts of the chemistry choices they make and to minimize the hazard associated with those choices. It’s a significant departure from traditional environmental protection, which focused on protecting people and the environment by minimizing exposure to hazardous substances. Instead, green chemistry protects by focusing on minimizing the intrinsic hazard of chemicals.

Fortunately, we can have the high-performing chemical products that our economy depends on—stuff used in health care, safety, building, transportation, electronics, food and agriculture, entertainment, and nearly every other industry—at a competitive price AND with a lower environmental footprint. There is no fundamental scientific reason that the chemistry has to be hazardous. The fact is that much of the chemistry that the industry currently uses is decades old and from a time that environmental protection was an afterthought, if it was a thought at all. What green chemistry espouses, and the winners of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge demonstrate, is that you can have “cleaner, cheaper, smarter chemistry” if you include reduced hazard as one of the design criteria.

My dream is that one day, we won’t need a Green Chemistry Program—it will be as natural a part of the way that chemists practice their science as the Periodic Table of the Elements. You can read more at

About the author: Rich Engler is a chemist in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and is currently the Program Manager for EPA’s Green Chemistry Program. Before he joined EPA, he taught Organic Chemistry at the University of San Diego.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Noha permalink
    June 23, 2009

    Great blog and a great direction for EPA to be headed in. While I don’t want to get into a discussion of terminology, I find the term “green chemistry” a bit confusing. Why doesn’t EPA use the term “cleaner production”, which is more widely used across the world?

  2. Xun XU permalink
    June 23, 2009

    Actually I strongly agree with the statement of the signature collector. As Rachle Carson wrote in her famous book Silent Spring-nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it-do you think it practically rational when human beings and nature are undergoing totally opposite process?

    When we take a close look into the chemical-related cases, the result is always about the economy. But how is the economy originated? The answer is human need-we need to live longer,need to look pretty, need to travel faster-so we need chemistry as a tool to realize all the needs which specially belong to MAN. It is awkward to know when we’re satisfying the current needs, the future needs are sacrificed or turned into the negative ones such as the need to see the doctor because of the early exposure to the toxic chemicals.

    Generally chemical reactions are instant compared to the natural ones along with huge energy released. What I’m going to express is that Chemistry cannot be sheerly “green” because we’re just a part of the great nature and we cannot take the role NATURE has played for millions of years. The only way that we’re supposed do to is to decrease the use of chemical produces and let the nature back to the stage. I think as long as people consider the development from the perspective of the nature, the sustained development can be truly and effectively implemented.

  3. permalink
    June 24, 2009

    i agree we should not need chemistry to make things safer its should be part of normal practice

  4. charanjit permalink
    June 24, 2009

    well this idea has brought along a great paradigm shift, maybe it would be looked at with more interest and understanding due to the current scenario of global warming and uncontrollable pollution. I strongly believe that everything we need is there around us in nature, when our needs exceeded we made substitutes, some of which has caused more harm. But we are unable to move out of the comfort zone and demand change!

    this needs to be looked at seriously!

  5. Johnny R. permalink
    June 24, 2009

    Let’s suppose green technology succeeded in preventing 100% of all polution and the economy kept on growing along with the growing human population. How many people can the Earth support? Someday you will have to answer that question like it or not — but by that time it could be too late to change.

  6. Rich Engler permalink
    June 30, 2009

    I am sorry you are confused by “green chemistry”. EPA defined the term in 1993 and has been using it ever since. Other terms, such as “clean production” and “cradle-to-cradle” are very similar.

    In my opinion, using “clean production” focuses on industrial and commercial chemistry, where “green chemistry” is broader and includes academic chemistry.

  7. Rich Engler permalink
    June 30, 2009

    The carrying capacity of the earth is not a fixed number, but neither is it infinite. It depends on reaching an ideal, sustainable economy, producing energy, goods, food, and clean water to meet the needs of the global population.

    Green chemistry is an important part of that sustainable paradigm, but by no means the only part.

  8. Maryd permalink
    August 28, 2009

    I do think that serious legislation needs to be passed that keeps chemists from creating products that have not been tested for safety. There is no logical reason for most of the toxic chemicals in our day to day consumer goods to be legal. The cost is to great to create them, market and sell them for years before we realize oops- this is a known carcinogen or an endocrine disrupter or this product pollutes our air, water, soil. It is very old thinking… And I hope for my children’s sake that we can quickly wise up very soon. It is terrible for corporations to put profit before people and the environment. It is also terrible for the government to allow it. That should not be permitted in our country.

  9. Islas permalink
    November 28, 2009

    I see the green word any where now, from cars to groceries or house items. What is it all about and what does it mean? What is the main objective of the 12 principles of Green chemistry?

  10. Rich Engler permalink
    December 4, 2009

    Green chemistry is about designing chemical products and processes with little or no hazard. For much of chemistry, the hazard is not integral to its function. For example: gasoline is hazardous because it burns and it contains toxic substances. The flammability is integral to its function–it has to burn to be a fuel for an internal combustion engine; however the toxicity is not. If you were designing a new fuel using green chemistry, you would design one that burns in the engine, but is minimally toxic.

    The same principles can be applied to chemical processes.

    The key point is to think about the function you need and design the chemistry to minimize the hazard.

  11. alonaika permalink
    July 15, 2010

    This is worth knowledgable blog. green chemistry could include anything from reducing waste to even disposing of waste in the correct manner. This field of chemistry for sustainability also stresses on using safe chemicals in its applications and designs of safer products. People should also lay importance on designing less hazardous chemical syntheses.

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