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Editorial: Sustainability was the word of the moment during the ACS Fall 2022 meeting

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
September 1, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 31

From a C&EN perspective, the American Chemical Society meetings are the gifts that keep on giving in terms of providing inspiration for future stories. The C&EN staff who attended the ACS Fall 2022 meeting in Chicago Aug. 21–25 came back brimming with story ideas that you’ll see crystallized into these pages in the coming months.

The theme of the meeting was “Sustainability in a Changing World.” No fewer than 11 technical divisions collaborated to present over 25 sessions and symposia on this topic. Attendees were spoiled for choice among talks addressing sustainability from different perspectives—environmental justice, the challenge of feeding the world’s population, the availability of clean water, energy security, education, and more.

There were plenty of mentions of the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the associated five p’s— people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership—as a framework against which to measure progress as we envision the world we want to live in come 2030.

The opening keynote session was coorganized by the Multidisciplinary Program Planning Group, the Committee on Environmental Improvement, and the Division of Environmental Chemistry. It featured talks by Jennifer Wilcox from the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, William Dichtel from Northwestern University, and Laura L. McConnell from Bayer Crop Science. The speakers represented government, academic, and industry perspectives, respectively. Their talks touched on many of the SDGs but were mainly centered on three.

In her talk on the role of carbon capture to meet net-zero carbon goals, Wilcox focused on SDG 13, “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” She spoke about her work at the Department of Energy, which she joined in 2021, and where she reorganized the Office of Fossil Energy and changed its aims—and name—to include carbon management. She also “flipped the mission upside down,” she said, to focus on “investing in minimizing both climate and environmental impacts associated with our dependence on fossil fuels” rather than just “improved efficiencies of how we extract fossil fuels out of the earth.”

Dichtel focused his talk on SDG 6, “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” He explored the idea of circularity and how globally we are “way below” target when it comes to recycling plastics. He zoomed in on polymer sustainability and specifically his group’s efforts toward making polyurethane—one of the more ubiquitous forms of plastics, used in applications such as insulation and cushioning—more reusable. His approach focuses on “reprocessing polyurethane by reshaping and reprocessing it” to reduce the amounts that are deposited in landfills, incinerated, or recycled through mechanical or chemical methods. He does this by incorporating a catalyst into the polymer “that can walk around that piece of plastic and scramble the bonds,” changing their location and facilitating the material’s conversion from a foam to a film when the catalyst is active.

McConnell tackled SDG 17, “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.” She spoke about sustainability being “a journey, not a destination,” and one best traveled with others. She highlighted the importance of partnerships between academia and industry, as well as private and public organizations, in working for a sustainable future.

Sustainability attracts good ideas and good intentions. But good solutions require new ways of thinking and new ways of working together across disciplines and industries. They require different, novel approaches, and at the ACS Fall 2022 meeting, there were certainly many under discussion.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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