When we explore the natural world around us in search of adventure, wonder, beauty, or solace, we are taught, “Take only pictures. Leave only footprints.” Although that is a good starting point, footprints themselves can sometimes be a problem. Stepping on the biological soil crust in the deserts of southeast Utah can crush and kill the cyanobacteria, lichen, and moss that retain water, fix nitrogen, and support most of the life in that area. It can take 50 years to develop the mature crust, so humans must step with care.
This year’s Chemists Celebrate Earth Week theme of “Reducing Our Footprint with Chemistry” recognizes that chemists make our own unique footprint on the world, and we have a professional responsibility to reduce the size and effect of that footprint to ensure that our world is healthy and sustainable. Chemists have a long history of solving problems to improve society, and our creativity empowers us to find the technological solutions needed to meet the challenges of climate change, hunger, sickness, and many others.
Green chemistry can and should play a key role in helping society reduce its footprint through designing products and processes that are not harmful to human health and the environment. Rather than waiting until a reaction or process looks promising before redesigning it to apply green principles, we should work toward pursuing every project using only environmentally friendly starting materials and processes. The ideal long-term strategy is to train chemists in green chemistry principles and practices from the beginning of their education rather than requiring every chemist to be retrained later in their careers. These green chemistry natives will always solve problems by reaching into their green chemistry toolboxes for solutions, thus making the whole system more efficient.
The integration of green chemistry into the undergraduate curriculum has been slowed, in part, by a shortage of curricular resources. The American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute is filling this resource gap by developing modules that present fundamental general and organic chemistry topics in the context of green chemistry, systems thinking, and the United Nations sustainable development goals. Teams of subject matter experts are designing these modules and will test them with their own classes before these new resources are freely available online. You can learn more about this initiative by visiting the project website at https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/students-educators/education-roadmap.html.
The concept of systems thinking is a key component of the curriculum-development project and takes into account the impacts of chemistry beyond the benchtop. Chemists need to consider the life cycle of a product: Where do the starting materials come from? How much energy is consumed by the process? What types and quantities of solvents are used? In addition, chemists and engineers need to take into account consequences beyond the chemistry building or the boundary of the manufacturing facility, such as contributions to climate change, fate of the product in the environment, and impacts on the local community.
Green chemistry can be a powerful strategy to address issues of environmental justice because industrial facilities are more likely to be situated near communities of color and low-income families. A green chemistry and systems thinking approach can help minimize releases to the air and water while improving safety through the judicious selection of reactants, reagents, and solvents. Such choices can ensure that fence-line communities—those adjacent to facilities that produce hazardous waste—do not disproportionately bear the impacts of producing goods for the benefit of others.
The global travel restrictions and lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6% in 2020, according to United Nations estimates, although that number will undoubtedly rebound as travel resumes. Unfortunately, the increased use of disposable masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), takeout containers from restaurants, and plastic to package our online orders has increased both micro- and macroplastics in the environment, substantially enlarging our global footprint in this area. Imagine a world where we could still keep health and frontline workers safe but use recyclable or reusable PPE made from sustainable starting materials, or where we could disinfect surfaces without adding hazardous chemicals to household and outdoor environments.
Chemists, especially those who are trained in green chemistry principles, can play a key role in addressing health and safety challenges while balancing continuing efforts to reduce our footprint on the environment. I look forward to hearing your ideas and feedback at email@example.com.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.