Search Results for: sustainability

Science Wednesday: The Future is Sustainability

By Paul Anastas

LPJ-at-NRCWow! November 30th was an amazing day for the EPA. Not only are we in the midst of commemorating four decades of accomplishments in protecting the health and the environment, but Administrator Jackson also made a landmark speech at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Science on the future of the EPA. That future is sustainability. The Administrator laid out her vision to a packed house of luminaries from across the spectrum, from academia to industry, to environmental groups.

The speech launched a study being conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) to provide an operational framework for EPA to incorporate sustainability into all the work we do; all of our decisions and all of our actions. While the Administrator was clear to emphasize that dramatic change like this doesn’t occur overnight, she also made it clear that just as the risk paradigm before it, a sustainability framework can have impact everyday even as it is continually refined and honed. In the summer of next year (2011) the NRC report with all of its recommendations will be completed and ready for review by the Agency. What this means is that we will continue to move forward and progress beyond the problem-by-problem approach to environmental protection and recognize that all environmental issues are linked; climate to energy; energy to water; water to agriculture, etc. We know that systems problems call for systems solutions and this sustainability framework will help us more effectively and more potently accomplish our mission in the future.

The body of excellent work on sustainability science has been rapidly growing for over two decades. There is widespread recognition across the scientific community that sustainability, holistic thinking, and a systems approach to environmental protection are the only way forward. The study launched yesterday is the critical step that so many sustainability scientists have been waiting for.

So what does this mean for the work of EPA? It means that the excellent work that is already being done—the science, the research, the innovative thinking and technology development—will of course continue. But, our work will be revitalized by taking advantage of the new tools, perspectives and enhanced effectiveness that goes along with sustainability.

The response to the Administrator’s announcement was uniformly positive and enthusiastic. This positive energy will continue to grow as the power and potential of sustainability science is realized.

Yesterday was a tremendous day for sustainability. But what’s most exciting is that it was just the beginning.

About the Author: Paul Anastas is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and is widely known as “The Father of Green Chemistry.”

Science Wednesday: The Sustainability Bowl. (Go Team Go!)

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

It’s that time of year again. Time for preparations, gathering the appropriate supplies, and making necessary travel arrangements. Naturally, I’m referring to the annual ritual of figuring out what college football team is the best.

By ushering in the holiday season, Thanksgiving Day marks the unofficial beginning of the earnest debate over which handful of college football teams are worthy of consideration for the big-time bowl games that will decide which team is this year’s champion.

But while college football is sure to command gobs of newsprint and hours of sports talk radio over the next six weeks or so, another kind of competition has recently unfolded on campuses across the country to somewhat less fanfare. Instead of athleticism, this one aims to recognize colleges for their sustainability prowess.

According to its web site, “the Campus Conservation Nationals 2010 is a nationwide resource use reduction competition that challenges college and university campuses to achieve the greatest electricity and water use reductions during a 3-week period.”

The contest is sponsored in part by a company founded by a winning team from EPA’s P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) competition. The team used their funding awards to develop a “dashboard” system that allows building occupants, such as dorm residents, to wirelessly monitor their electricity and water usage in real-time.

To test their idea, the P3 team pitted two dorms against each other to see who could reduce their energy and water usage the most. As you would expect, when residents were able to keep a close eye on energy use, they were more motivated to conserve.

The idea proved to be a real winner, and the team was able to parlay their success at the EPA P3 sustainable design competition into launching a successful small business. It’s one of several P3 success stories that have not only brought sustainable ideas to the marketplace but helped create jobs.

While a college competition for energy and water consumption savings may not fill a stadium full of spectators, in the long run it could provide just as important a legacy as a national football championship.

About the Author: A science writer-editor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Aaron Ferster is also editor of Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Science Wednesday: Learning About Green Chemistry and Sustainability

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

My introduction to “green chemistry” came a few weeks ago when I sat in on a Sustainability Workshop conducted for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. The workshop was led by John C. Warner, Ph.D., founder of the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Dr. Warner has been honored with numerous awards, has hundreds of patents to his name, and enjoys widespread recognition in his field. He also co-authored Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice with EPA Assistant Administrator Paul Anastas, a book largely responsible for setting the Green Chemistry movement in motion.

During his presentation, Dr. Warner stated, “I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds, and I have never been taught what makes a chemical toxic. I have no idea what makes a chemical an environmental hazard!”

That certainly got my attention. How could it be possible that a chemist at the top of his field had never studied toxicity? Dr. Warner offered a surprising answer to this question. “In order to earn a degree in chemistry,” he stated, “no university requires any demonstration of knowledge regarding toxicity or environmental impact.” The presence of toxins, he explained “always gets found out later in the process because it’s not part of the training.”

Green Chemistry, I learned, is designed to change that. Its principles aim for less hazardous chemical synthesis and striving to design safer chemicals instead of dealing with hazard throughout the process. Of course this is not a simple matter, and Dr. Warner detailed just how complex and challenging it is. “It’s an incremental process”, he said, one which requires much research, hard work, and innovation. Products have already been patented, however, that have been designed following the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

“We’ve got to celebrate the improvements where they are” Warner says, and we have to proceed with the mind set to change the status quo. Green chemistry has the potential to protect human health and safety while creating more cost effective and better performing alternatives to the current process and products.

It seems that green chemistry is a huge frontier for further exploration and research as well as a huge opportunity not only for universities but for science in the U.S. as well. Green Chemistry has many other facets in addition to those I have mentioned. Although I was just recently introduced to the topic, Dr. Warner has helped me see how incredibly important it is.

About the Author: Cathryn Courtin is a student at Georgetown University in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs program. She is spending her summer working as a student contractor at EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability and Leadership

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in recent years when discussing current environmental events. On the heels of the BP Oil Spill, it has become an imperative. Last week I attended a speech by Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D., EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development. The speech was the keynote address at the American Chemical Society’s Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference.

Anastas, the “father of green chemistry” and one of the founders of the conference, focused his remarks on the importance of leadership and the opportunity for innovation in the fields of green chemistry and engineering. Using the oil spill as an example, the speech was punctuated by stirring images, including the technologically impressive offshore drilling platform and the less than inventive booms, one of the tools employed during the clean-up. It made me question the decision to put all our stock into technology that is efficient at acquiring natural resources, but fails to protect or sustain them.

As a student of architecture who has worked on projects involving sustainable design I was pleased to hear Anastas champion elegant technology. His comments made me think about my own attempts to foster sustainability. With any new idea, cutting-edge technology can only get you so far. An ugly idea is unappealing to the general public. However, when technology is wrapped in an attractive and efficient package it can be successful. Clearly, technology is only one part of the equation to reach sustainable goals, and I think a lot of work must be done to bridge the gap between ideology and practice.

I was particularly struck by the remark that Anastas made about how he coined the term “green chemistry,” choosing the label green based on both environmental and economic principles (“Green is the color of money,” he pointed out.)

The terms “environmental” and “economic” seem at odds with each other in a modern context as the country continues to experience the effects of a fiscal downturn and many proposed sustainable methods have proved both costly and inefficient. The development of new technology that is successful on both levels can create the opportunity for economic growth and recovery without degrading the environment and threatening human health. However, I was inspired by the optimistic tone and the reassurance that we have the ability to reconcile these two values, that with persistence and ingenuity we can redefine a sustainable future and employ our creativity to “become the leaders we have been waiting for.”

About the Author: Hillary Kett is a student contractor with the Communications team in the Office of Research and Development.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability on Steroids

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Have you heard about geoengineering? It has been around as a concept for over a decade, but has come into the forefront recently because of a Royal Society report last fall and a new book. It is offered as a solution to global climate change, one of the biggest sustainability issues.

The idea behind geoengineering is that planet earth came to its present state because humans engineered natural systems on a large scale. For example, humans changed the flow of rivers. We straightened them, dammed them, diverted them, reversed them. Humans changed the landscape: cut down forests, plowed the soil, blew up hills and mountains. Humans changed the atmosphere. We sent toxic wastes skyward, spewed out CO2 from combustion, filled the skies with particles.

In short, we engineered the planet on a very large scale.

Unfortunately, these projects had unintended consequences such as poor water quality or decreased quantity, land erosion and loss of nutrients in the soil, global climate change. So, a kind of large-scale reverse engineering might be in order to fix these problems.

In particular, geoengineering has been offered as a possible way to reverse the effects of climate change. For example, geoengineers have suggested :

  • fertilizing the ocean to increase the growth of algae which take up CO2 and give off oxygen as they photosynthesize
  • putting huge mirrors into orbit to reflect back some of the warming sunlight
  • seeding the clouds so it would rain when and where wanted
  • pumping CO2 deep into the earth or ocean

All this sounds like science fiction, but it is proposed by perfectly objective scientists/engineers. The concern is that someone will come along and say let’s “just do it.” There may or may not be dire consequences from “just doing it.” This is where science comes in.

Barbara KarnBecause of the importance and scale of these issues, we need to gather the knowledge to make intelligent decisions. Ignorance is not bliss and must be erased in the light of facts.
In the case of geoengineering, we must neither avoid research in this area just because it seems like a science fiction solution to our climate problem, nor should we embrace it as a quick fix and neglect the long term action of lowering and controlling emissions. Just like steroids’ quick fix, these solutions may have dire consequences.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability Is Our True North

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

A week ago at the Keck Center of the National Academies,  I heard Paul Anastas, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, speak about sustainability. He said, “sustainability is our true north.”

That started my thinking about both sustainability and true north.

I work with sustainability (and nanotechnology) most of the time and am comfortable with the 1987 Brundtland commission’s statement: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But what does this have to do with true north? …and is there an “un-true” north?

If you are a sailor or wilderness hiker, you are aware that your compass does not point to “true” north, but rather is influenced by the magnetism surrounding the earth (remember the big iron core from 9th grade geology?). Compasses follow magnets. As the core shifts (planet earth and its core materials are moving, after all), the poles of the earth’s magnet shift, and the compasses follow. We read a magnetic north, not true north, on these compasses.

To get to true north from a compass reading, it depends on where you use it and when you read it. Today in Washington DC, we subtract about 10.5 degrees from the compass reading. This means that if the magnetic compass in DC says I am heading due north, and I want to vacation on Lake Ontario, I might end up staying on Lake Erie instead if I don’t make the proper corrections to my compass. Using the magnetic compass, we have to make these corrections as we travel. If we don’t, the longer we travel, the further off course we get. Of course, in these days of GPS, this scenario is highly unlikely.

For sustainability, we need to set a course for the true north that allows humans to live a healthy life while supporting our ecosystems and our social and economic activities without compromising future generations. We need to correct our compasses as we move toward sustainability and not be thrown off course by a magnetic pull of short term goals that cause shortages and suffering in the long term. …and the sooner we head for true north, the better our course will be.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.

Science Wednesday: Sustainability Through the Eyes of a Chemist

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

As a research chemist at EPA for more than ten years, I have had the opportunity to be  at the forefront of developing novel technologies to achieve the Agency’s mission—to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment. I have also had the good fortune that this period has also marked the burgeoning of Green Chemistry.

There is no doubt that within the past 10+ years the field of chemistry has exploded with the integration of philosophies associated with Green Chemistry.  Very simply, one can envision and justifiably define Green Chemistry as “preventing pollution at the
molecular level.”

It follows, that if the pollution is not created in the first place, there is no need for clean-up and remediation technologies. The research undertaken where I work, the National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio has focused on applying the principles of Green Chemistry and merging them with the principles of chemical engineering.

The overall goal is to develop novel methodologies to produce organic chemicals with a minimized environmental footprint.  Our research has demonstrated that a researcher can use chemistry to influence process design as well as using novel reactors to design new chemical routes for organic synthesis.

As my research career in the area of Green Chemistry continues to grow, I feel that in order to move this field even further, I have to expand on this integration of chemistry and chemical engineering.

I believe that if one is take full advantages of the philosophies of Green Chemistry, researchers must begin to think holistically, and think past the “chemistry bench.” If you look at all the opportunities that exist for process improvements, one must not just be limited to the chemistry, but now must be looking at the plant and not just the bench.

This is where I developed the term Sustainable Chemistry.

image of the authorAbout the author: EPA research chemist Michael A. Gonzalez, Ph.D, has served as a primary investigator for Green Chemistry and Engineering projects. His focuses on the development of sustainable chemical processes, incorporating a holistic view of on-going chemistry and processing. He is currently the Branch Chief for the Systems Analysis Branch.

Science Wednesday: Celebrating Sustainability and the Environment

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Alan D. Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He has also served as the Associate Director for Sustainable Development, White House Council on Environmental Quality (2002-2003), and the Director of International Environmental Affairs for the National Security Council (2001-2002).

Charles Perrings, a professor of Environmental Economics at the Global Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University, recently argued that the development of discipline-based science, while the source of nearly all the scientific advances of the past century, has limited the ability of science to address problems that span more than one discipline.

Sustainability science is a new discipline of a different kind: it draws upon many existing disciplines to forge a systems approach to environmental management. Its fundamental contribution is to solve problems.

Today, few of the world’s environmental problems can simply be addressed as an issue basically restricted to air, water, or chemicals. Sustainability science is the integration of all of these disciplines to better understand how humans and society interact as a system.

Sustainability science is asking the right questions:

  • Why aim merely to reduce toxic waste when we can eliminate it with new chemicals and processes?
  • Why handle and dispose of growing amounts of waste when we can more efficiently manage materials that eliminate, reduce, or recycle waste?

When EPA was created in 1970, its focus of attention was on reducing obvious sources of pollution to the environment. When the oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in June 1969, it drew attention to other environmental problems across the country and helped to spur the environmental movement that led to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Since its creation in 1970, EPA has been largely successful in addressing many of the most obvious and pressing environmental issues of that time, such as the quality of air and water. But new approaches are now needed to deal with emerging and newly recognized problems:

  • the expanding population and economy and their demand for energy and materials;
  • the changing rates of urban sprawl and loss of biodiversity;
  • nonpoint, trans-boundary, and trans-media sources of pollutants such as storm water runoff;
  • genetically modified organisms;
  • the potentially harmful effects of these products as well as endocrine disruptors and nanoparticles; and
  • the cumulative impacts of all these factors on the environment and public health.

Addressing these and other environmental issues in an integrated manner will demand a greater focus on sustainability and the vital need to develop sustainability science. We will need to apply what we learn to foster policies and best practices that can help people coexist with the planet.

The development and achievements of sustainability science deserve the increasing recognitions that it is receiving great deal of credit for this progress. Among this recognition is the May 2009 celebration of the month of Sustainability and the Environment as part of the Year of Science.

Science Wednesday: Nice Dear, But What’s Sustainability?

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Cynthia Nolt-Helms is the Manager of EPA’s P3 – People, Prosperity and the Planet – Program

image of authorOn vacation last week visiting my husband’s family in Florida, I had to answer a flood of work-related emails and phone calls. By the second day, everyone around me was puzzled and a bit annoyed about what was so important that I couldn’t take even a few days break from my job.

“I’m planning the National Sustainable Design Expo which is part of EPA’s P3 Award Competition,” I told them all proudly.

“That’s nice dear, but what’s that and why don’t they leave you alone,” my mother-in-law asked politely.

I explained to her that the Expo is the culmination of a year’s hard work. The program I manage, EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet Program (“P3” for short) gives me the opportunity to meet and interact with some of the movers and shakers of the next generation. EPA awards grants of $10,000 in the fall to universities for teams of students to design and research ideas for ways to live more sustainably on the planet.

The teams work on their projects and then come to Washington, DC in the spring to the National Sustainable Design Expo to exhibit and compete for an EPA P3 Award and additional funds. The students are bright and passionate about the environment, and their projects demonstrate great creativity and ingenuity. As a long-time federal employee who has worked most of her career for EPA in Washington, DC, I am exhilarated every year by the students’ optimism and idealism. They give me hope for the future.

At this year’s Expo — running this coming Saturday through Monday — we expect to see some amazing ideas: a solar powered water heater, wetlands for cleaning up dairy wastewater, solar panels to remove salt from water, even a method for using the sun to disinfect water.

Hmmm, now that I think about it, we need to plan for sunny weather!

But these are just a few of the 48 team projects and 35 exhibitors from nonprofit and government organizations that will be under the Expo tent on the National Mall between 3rd and 4th Streets, NW in DC. If you live in the area, or are visiting DC this coming weekend, I hope you can join us on the Mall to “See the future today!” I know you will be glad you did.

The 2009 National Sustainable Design Expo featuring EPA’s P3 Award is cosponsored by EPA and Beyond Benign, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and green chemistry.

Expo Hours: Saturday, April 18th – Noon – 5:00 pm; Sunday, April 19th – 9:00 am to 5:00 pm; Monday, April 20 – 9:00 am – 3:00 pm

Science Wednesday – EPA:The Go-To Agency on Sustainability

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Alan D. Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He has also served as the Associate Director for Sustainable Development, White House Council on Environmental Quality (2002-2003), and the Director of International Environmental Affairs for the National Security Council (2001-2002).

Three Star Clusters Shine in the Night Sky

The brightest one is “Academiasta,” a cluster of colleges and university committed to running their institutions and educating their students on sustainability principles and practices. Not very distant from Academiasta is “Industrina”, a growing group of energy and manufacturing companies working to turn their landscapes green. Further away is “Neuvo Federalvo,” a cluster of dim stars, flickering on and off in the night sky.

In the Neuvo Federalvo cluster sits one sleeping giant whose internal energy has been growing and who is now ready to shower the night sky with a new light. All eyes are on EPA watching for a super nova sustainability explosion in the days ahead.

EPA and the Office of Research and Development (ORD) showed remarkable foresight and leadership in developed a Sustainable Research Strategy (2007) emphasizing a systems approach to dealing with environmental issues. The Strategy has been influential in affecting the direction of a number of EPA policy and research programs:

  • our Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation’s Sector Reports on Energy and Manufacturing include sustainability measures
  • the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances’ Pollution Prevention Program is reassessing its long-term goals bases on the Sustainability Strategy
  • an interoffice Vision 2020 working group is currently revising the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response’s RCRA 2020 report with a major focus on shifting from waste to materials management
  • the Office of Water has developed a strategy for Sustainable Water Infrastructure.

The need to focus on sustainable outcomes and implement sustainable management practices is more urgent today than ever before.

ORD created a sustainability Web site to advance EPA as a GoTo Agency on sustainability. The site is a onestop source for hundreds of EPA sustainability and research programs.

The site has just been updated and new sections have been added in four cross-cutting EPA program areas: urban sustainability and green building, water and ecosystem services, energy, climate and biofuels, and materials, toxics and human health.

The three clusters in the sky—Academiasta, Industrina and Neuvo Federalvo—could create a new constellation larger and more impressions than anything that has been seen before. In this constellation, EPA can be one of the brightest stars.

All astronomers are welcome to navigate the EPA cluster.