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Building a sustainable future for all

by Elise Fox, chair, ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement
February 20, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 7


Every American Chemical Society committee, division, and local section can go through the strategic planning process. An important step in the process is developing the mission and vision for your organization. The ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) completed its strategic plan in August, and our vision is “Chemistry for a sustainable world.” This vision belongs not to the 30 members of CEI but to all of us.

Elise Fox.
Credit: Courtesy of Elise Fox
Elise Fox

Similar to CEI’s vision, the United Nations sustainable development goals (UN SDGs) are a call to ensure our actions today do not compromise the ability of our children and future generations to meet their own needs. ACS has chosen to highlight 9 of the 17 UN SDGs to which we, as chemical professionals, are uniquely able to contribute. We have the tools and ability to provide clean water and sanitation in every community, just as we can help supply clean and affordable energy for all. We can mitigate climate change. It will not be easy, but it is doable, and we are up for the task.

This will require that we examine our actions, both in and out of the laboratory, in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. It is now our job as inventors and entrepreneurs to think beyond the immediate intention of our work. When the first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, I doubt he could have imagined how plastics would enable the safe storage of lifesaving medicines and create bullet-stopping Kevlar. Just as I doubt he could have envisioned the day an island of plastic twice the size of Texas would float in the Pacific gyre or that we would be unintentionally ingesting plastic particles through the foods that we eat.

It is not enough to change our personal patterns; we must help and educate others.

Nearly 3 billion people worldwide lack access to basic sanitation facilities, and even the most developed countries struggle to provide clean water and sanitation for all communities. Freshwater resources are increasingly stressed as climate change exacerbates drought cycles and increases the intensity of storms. There is less water where it is needed yet more than many coastal communities can handle. Water is essential to life, agricultural production, and most industrial activities, but our infrastructure is failing. According to the EPA, in the US alone, more than $470 billion is needed over the next 20 years to maintain existing public water infrastructure, which has received a D grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. However, there is positive news. Communities such as Camden County, New Jersey, have developed innovative gray water programs in response to community needs. While our individual actions to limit water use and pollution may seem small and inconsequential when compared with the whole, collectively we can make a real difference in our communities.

The US emitted over 1.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from energy production in 2020 according to the US Energy Information Administration. Providing affordable and clean energy for all also requires an examination of how we use electricity and how we produce it. We can use our skills as chemists and chemical engineers to innovate less energy-intensive processes. We can investigate how the energy we use is produced and encourage our electric providers to use more environmentally friendly alternatives. We can advocate for environmental equity in communities where pollution from energy production has disproportionately affected people of color, including Indigenous communities.

We must ensure that sustainable consumption and production patterns become the norm as we reimagine the recycling triangle from “reduce, reuse, recycle” to “refuse, reuse, recycle.” By using total life-cycle analysis, we can better understand the impacts of end products and their disposal on our environments. We must move beyond considerations of production and use alone. Three billion people worldwide do not have access to proper waste facilities; therefore, waste disposal is unregulated, further contributing to health disparities in local communities. It is imperative the entire cycle of production, consumption, and disposal be evaluated more stringently. Consumers must insist that those who reap the benefits of production and consumption take joint responsibility for what happens at the end of product life.

We must take immediate action to mitigate climate change. This begins with limiting our personal greenhouse gas emissions but also involves examining the choices we make each day in what we consume, how we consume it, and how we dispose of it. The ACS Climate Science Toolkit can help you better understand climate change and communicate with others. It is not enough to change our personal patterns; we must help and educate others.

As we work to build partnerships for sustainable development within our communities, with our employers, and within our homes, I challenge you to think at and beyond the bench. We cannot pretend that this message is new. We have heard it for over 60 years—since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published. Our progress has come in baby steps, but now our actions must be bolder. By working together, we can build a sustainable future for all. Where will you start? To quote John Lewis, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

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



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