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It’s not easy being green

‘Green chemistry’ – just an empty buzz-word or a vital strategy for the future of chemistry? Christina Valimaki tells us why sustainability in chemistry is vital, not just for industry but for humankind

With 8.3% of all deaths and 5.7% of the total burden of disease worldwide due to chemical exposure it is no surprise that the conversation around green chemistry is becoming more prominent.

While the tendency may be to focus on creating sustainable, new solutions, the industry also needs to consider developing ‘green’ alternatives to existing products. Indeed, and the global market for green chemistry has been projected to grow to nearly £76 billion by 2020.

With the increasing attention on sustainable chemistry, the public will come to expect that companies ensure both new chemicals and chemicals already within a company’s portfolio are ‘kinder’ to the environment. Unlike other ‘buzz words’ that are closely associated with a specific branch of science – as with precision medicine and pharmaceuticals – green and sustainable chemistry advancements have yet to be attributed to the chemical and manufacturing industries. In fact, the perception today is that the chemicals industry is not doing enough to promote green chemistry, despite the range of vital, and interesting, work going on in this area.

The chemical industry’s journey to sustainability has only just begun and there is always an opportunity for improvement and innovation

 Bring in the experts

With this in mind, during the 3rd Green and Sustainable Chemistry Conference, held in Berlin this month Elsevier brought together a number of experts from a range of sectors at a roundtable – designed to look at how the chemical and manufacturing industries support and promote green and sustainable chemistry. It was an opportunity for industry leaders to discuss and debate their organisations’ take on ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. They also considered how the industry can do more to promote the important work that is being done in this area, as well as how to raise awareness about green chemistry and what it means for the global population.

The panelists represented a diverse range of geographies and sectors, from forestry and business to chemical engineering and sustainability leadership. This breadth of experience came from some of the most long-standing and pioneering experts in the industry, including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

This helped to encourage a rounded and well considered conversation around the industry and its responsibility to promote green and sustainable chemistry – particularly to the public who unaware of the leaps being made. What the panelists, with their unique perspectives, did agree upon was that the chemical industry needs to improve how it talks about green and sustainable chemistry, and continue to encourage new innovation.

Sustainability high-five

The conversation raised five key elements that the participants agreed were fundamental ways to inspire and promote a greener and more sustainable chemical industry:

  1. Green chemistry must anticipate and solve problems. This should be done before they emerge as issues that demand regulation; for example, aligning industry efforts with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals cannot be done without looking at chemistry’s role.
  2. Don’t use green chemistry to justify or contradict the negative perception of other elements of chemistry. Instead focus on how green chemistry can help to build upon the innovation of the chemicals industry, and is essentially the next progressive step.
  3. Stop considering green and sustainable chemistry in a silo. Sustainability asks questions about how users experience products, and how they can recycle and dispose of products – the industry needs to look at how a product works in the customer context, since it’s customers who ultimately drive business growth.
  4. Consider the circular economy and how the product life cycle works. Chemical innovation is a cross-disciplinary effort, and working collaboratively to make sustainable products is a great opportunity to promote the positives of green chemistry as the heart of cutting edge materials technology overall.
  5. Inform the public, and demonstrate the value of green and sustainable chemistry. Ensure that the public understand why the product is more sustainable than alternatives, and what this means practically for the consumer, the environment and the industry.

 

Multidisciplinary collaboration is essential

Sustainability also goes beyond a simple binary choice for organisations. Instead, they need to understand how one choice made in the interests of sustainability can impact other areas. It requires multidisciplinary knowledge and collaboration. An example of this approach was seen last year in one of the winners of Elsevier’s Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge. Dr Dênis Pires de Lima, a professor at Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, won with a proposal for using sustainably sourced castor oil to produce an insecticide to help prevent mosquito-borne diseases. Covering chemistry and health, Dr de Lima’s solution also helps to tackle an important global issue.

Promoting the collaboration which will support green and sustainable chemistry begins with companies, and research and education institutions encouraging a co-operative approach – across cultures, across geographies and across industries. Applied chemistry is now a multidisciplinary science and as such it requires access to a wide range of information from numerous sources in order to successfully undertake research for practical innovation. But in an era of ever-expanding information – scientific output doubles every nine years – chemists need modern tools that make chemistry literature and data quickly accessible which also reduce the time taken to find answers.

Chemists also need greater ‘soft-skills’, such as the ability to network and collaborate, to support them as they work across this range of disciplines. It is vital to support the development of the next generation of chemists and engineers by providing collaborative opportunities throughout their education, be it with other students, or other universities or companies. But this alone is not enough, it is also important to teach the next generation of scientists how to make use of their knowledge by solving real world problems, across disciplines.

The future is bright, and green

The chemical industry’s journey to sustainability has only just begun and there is always an opportunity for improvement and innovation. In order to ensure that the future of developing and promoting green chemistry is a success, companies must also invest in the necessary people, tools and solutions. It is vital to ensure that an organisation, and its people, have the skills and equipment available to support the progression of the industry.

As the world’s population nears 9 billion, and the strain on the planet’s resources grows, this will become increasingly vital. Ultimately, the chemical industry needs to support the development of chemists and provide access to the latest digital and collaborative tools. In doing so, it will accelerate the development of green solutions to help to solve the sustainability problems we will be facing globally over the next 50 years, securing its own place in the lifestyles, and minds, of future consumer markets.

 

Author:

 Christina Valimaki is Sr. Director, Chemicals Industry at Elsevier

 

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