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ACS Comment: Sustainable Chemistry enters new territory

by Laura E. Pence, chair, ACS Green Chemistry Institute Advisory Board
May 26, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 19


A photo of Laura Pence.
Credit: Lifetouch
Laura E. Pence

This year, the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) celebrates 25 years of spearheading efforts to reimagine chemistry for a sustainable future—through industry roundtables, education program development, and the flagship Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference, which this year takes place June 6–8 in Reston, Virginia, and online. GCI’s mission complements the new ACS Campaign for a Sustainable Future Initiative, which brings new resources and focus to advance innovation and to prepare chemists to tackle the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Sustainability and green chemistry—in which the design, development, and implementation of chemical products and processes are reshaped to reduce resource consumption, minimize waste, and maximize safety for all workers and users—has steadily gained momentum and recently acquired a foothold in national policy.

The Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act, sponsored by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representatives John Moolenaar (R-MI) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL), was passed in early 2021. This act represents a potentially significant step forward in promoting the implementation of more sustainable practices in the US chemistry enterprise. ACS has championed a federal green and sustainable chemistry program for over 2 decades, and led the charge on Capitol Hill for its passage.

This act calls on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC)—to convene an interagency group to coordinate federal programs and activities in support of sustainable chemistry. Among the agencies represented in the group are the Environmental Protection Agency; National Science Foundation; National Institutes of Health; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Food and Drug Administration; and the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture. One of the first activities of this interagency entity is to develop a strategic plan no later than 2 years after the enactment of the act, and the first element of that strategic plan is to develop a consensus on a definition of sustainable chemistry.

ACS’s role in advocating for sustainable chemistry has not ended with the passage of the law. ACS, along with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), has been a valued contributor and resource to NSTC and the interagency entity’s work this past year to establish a workable consensus around a sustainable chemistry definition. In addition, on April 4, the NSTC published a request for information in the Federal Register to solicit opinions “on the preferred definition for sustainable chemistry.” Although some may think creating a definition is unimportant, this work establishes a solid foundation for the subsequent strategic plan intended to promote sustainable chemistry research.

The Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act is an important step forward for the promotion of sustainable chemistry in the US and beyond, but it is clearly only one step in a long path. ACS, in partnership with a large number of stakeholders, will continue to be a powerful and essential force to help move sustainable chemistry forward. As can be seen by the accomplishments of GCI over the past quarter century, ACS, industry, academia, and allied organizations do not need to wait for the NSTC to develop a consensus definition or a strategic plan for us to have a meaningful impact in this area.

The Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act is an important step forward for the promotion of sustainable chemistry in the US and beyond.

In December 2021, the ACS Board of Directors approved funding for a Campaign for a Sustainable Future Initiative as part of its 2022–26 Strategic Plan. This campaign has three main outcomes:

Increase the amount and pace of chemistry​-related sustainability innovation research.

Transform this research rapidly into readily adaptable industrial approaches for manufacturing and managing chemicals more sustainably.

Create a future chemistry enterprise workforce trained in sustainability concepts to revolutionize the discipline.

This campaign should reinforce that everyone in ACS has a role to play whether in industry, policy, education, law, or any chemistry-related fields. The energy, insight, and expertise of well-trained chemists will be vital to address sustainability as articulated by the UN’s agenda in its 17 sustainable development goals and their associated targets.

This spring, when students in my science and public policy seminar were allowed to choose discussion topics, they selected some of the biggest challenges our world faces: climate change, the war in Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic. After I overheard a comment that yet another class was ending on a depressing note, I began to directly address the students’ collective need to take action. We looked at what policy changes would be beneficial and how they or their families could contribute to sustainability for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. I challenge each of us to contribute to making the world a more sustainable place for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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