Green Chemistry Is The Path To Chemical Safety

On June 22nd, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law, bringing the first legislative reform to chemical management regulation in 40 years! From car seats to zippers, nearly every product in and out of the home has the potential to change because of this bill - meaning your favorite toy or cooking pan could be reformulated because chemicals toxic to human health are used in the production.  And the bill also includes special protections for women's and children's health. Sound great?  Sort of.  The reality of the bill is that it's a mixed bag - only twenty chemicals of the thousands and thousands that are actually used in consumer goods are required to be tested per year, and there's a 64,000 backlog - but with increased authority, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can prevent new problems from entering the market.

That means that real effort is needed to make this bill more than just public relations. To be sure, there are some good things in this bill, such as setting new safety standards for chemicals with ties to cancer, mental health, and infertility and allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to obtain more information about a chemical before approving its use. We need more action to pollute less.

What this really means is that we need to find other ways to protect people and the environment from the chemicals that we routinely use, like dry cleaning solvents, and this is exactly what green chemistry aims to do. One important way to do this is to promote green chemistry. This is a movement to create products that reduce pollution without sacrificing function. While a nod to green chemistry is hidden at the bottom of this bill (about a Sustainable Chemistry Initiative), in reality, it does not do enough to either raise consciousness or change practice.  This rule does present opportunities to really benefit from better integration of a discipline called green chemistry, and we must do more to capitalize on this.

But if education, industry, AND government simultaneously work to integrate green chemistry into our daily lives, then change is possible. 

If we practice green chemistry, our daily lives will change and make our kids and the world safer.  Food packaging will necessarily change because instead of Styrofoam, which isn't biodegradable but does release cancerous by-products when burned, we can use mushroom-based packaging that's non-toxic and compostable! From how we use transportation (ethanol) to the shoes we wear (thanks, Nike!) green chemistry is already touching our lives. It's time for consumers and the federal government alike to highlight green chemistry! Here are the two key reasons why we should focus more on green chemistry.

First off, green chemistry makes and saves money.

Green chemistry industry is expected to grow from $2.8 billion in 2011 to $98.5 billion by 2020 while saving industry $65.5 billion according to one often-cited study. 

Businesses care...

Because businesses tend to emphasize forward-looking, streamlined processes, businesses already implement green chemistry into the production of many of their goods, and even more could be on the way with greater pressure from consumers. Individual businesses and coalitions like the American Chemical Society (ACS) Green Chemistry Institute and the industrial sectors drawn into it (e.g. pharmaceuticals and chemical manufacturers) have begun to respond to their main driver, consumer pressure, and are becoming more competitive by incorporating green chemistry - their gains in productivity are likely to offset any potential costs of reducing their environmental impact. 

To fully incorporate the benefits of green chemistry throughout society, what should we change? 

Industry is already poised to go big time into green chemistry. That innovation and the effects of green chemistry will be magnified across society if we are better educated about it, and if all sectors - industry, consumer and government - are better connected. 

Education - The next generation of consumers should pressure even more

Because green chemistry principles are just now emerging as part of chemistry education in the United States, students, who are the next generation of practitioners and consumers, do not understand the scientific and economic relevance of green chemistry to their lives. We need to leverage increased awareness and funding concurrently because this will lead to more and better sustainable products and processes and funding opportunities.

Better-equipped citizens make informed decisions about green and sustainable technologies, products, and industries that affect their lives, and this Act begins that process. Integrating green chemistry into school curricula will connect chemistry curriculum to students' everyday lives allowing benefits of real world contexts to motivate learning about chemistry. For example, leveraging the popularity of environmental sustainability among youth is a great way to connect chemistry concepts with issues we are passionate about.  Imagine encouraging students to use chemistry to develop alternative cosmetics or toys that are more sustainable? 

In green chemistry, innovation and education can happen concurrently. Society does not have time to wait for innovation before educating the next generation. Using real world issues as a starting point to introduce science concepts contextualizes environmental and sustainability issues, improves decision-making, and helps to create a scientifically literate citizenry. This approach will also improve consumers' understanding of the products they buy, which has the potential to create a positive feedback where educated consumers demand more sustainable products and processes and where scientists are literate in green chemistry and can employ its principles broadly.

Connect Industry, Government, and the Public 

While the EPA has supported many important projects, green chemistry is multi-disciplinary and can support cross-agency efforts from the EPA to the Department of Energy to the US Department of Agriculture. A new model for interagency coordination - modeled after the Sustainable Chemistry Initiative suggested at the very bottom of this Act - would coordinate green chemistry research, development, technology transfer, education, and training across federal agencies and in support of larger US national efforts. This kind of mega effort supported by a green chemistry curriculum can make our use of chemicals more sustainable.   

While the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act is a good step forward, let's make sure that our government doesn't forget about the Sustainable Chemistry Initiative tucked away at the very bottom of the bill.  The more green chemistry is used and understood, the closer we get to fulfilling our legislators' promise to make the chemicals in our lives safer.  A coordinated and integrated effort across education, industry, and government can make this Act a truly effective reality.