Green Chemistry – Chemistry Done Right

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 www.epa.gov/greenchemistry.

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.