Science Wednesday: Green Chemistry Turns 20

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

By Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D.

Green Chemistry was introduced into the world 20 years ago by EPA—a blueprint for designing safer chemical products and processes. Today, not only has this powerful concept transformed the field of chemistry, but has also given us the tools to build a sustainable future.

EPA’s scientific leadership has guided the way.

The world’s first green chemistry research solicitation—Alternative Synthetic Pathways for Pollution Prevention—was released by EPA in 1991 and it was just the beginning. Scores of articles, books like Benign by Design, the first-ever research symposium on green chemistry, and numerous partnerships and collaborations emerged from the collection of excellent research in EPA’s fledgling Green Chemistry Program.

The growing body of work suggested that hazard and toxicity do not have to be elements of our products and processes. Instead, they are unintended “design flaws” that can largely be avoided with thoughtful molecular design—a revolutionary concept.

The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, started here at EPA in 1995, recognize innovative green chemistry solutions for pollution prevention. At its heart, the program is about demonstrating environmental and economic synergies, belying the myth that a healthy environment and a strong economy are incompatible. On average, winning technologies have eliminated nearly 200 million pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents, saved 21 billion gallons of water and eliminated 57 million pounds of atmospheric carbon dioxide releases every year.

What began at EPA as a small, singular effort—the only research program of its kind—has grown into a collective endeavor of the worldwide scientific community. There are now green chemistry research networks in more than 30 countries on every settled continent, and at least four international scientific journals devoted to the topic. I am astounded by the brilliance, creativity, and leadership that has cultivated the field and allowed it to flourish.

Twenty years later, I am honored to be back at the Agency that brought green chemistry to life. I am humbled by the field’s progress and incredible scientific advances over the course of two decades and only more deeply humbled by the breakthroughs waiting over the horizon and the scientific discoveries yet to be made as EPA continues to pursue and support innovative work in the field of green chemistry.

About the Author: Widely known as “The Father of Green Chemistry,” Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the Science Advisor to the Agency.

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.