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Sustainability, collaboration, and innovation

by H. N. Cheng, ACS president-elect
February 8, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 6


This is a photo of H. N. Cheng.
Credit: Courtesy of H. N. Cheng

Sustainability seems to have a lot of momentum these days, and that is good for the future of chemistry and our society. In the past 2 years, C&EN reported on the following news:

The US House of Representatives passed a sustainable chemistry bill.

The California Institute of Technology received a $750 million gift for sustainability research from Stewart and Lynda Resnick.

Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings opened a sustainability center at Arizona State University.

Sustainable Bioproducts invested $33 million to develop edible proteins.

Procter & Gamble unveiled sustainability goals, including making the packaging of its top 20 brands 100% recyclable or reusable.

Sustainability is needed to preserve the quality of life on this planet, and it represents an investment in our children and their future. The practice of sustainability can decrease energy use, reduce waste, minimize the use of materials, and reduce hazards and risks.

The mission of the American Chemical Society is to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people. Indeed, ACS has made great strides with respect to sustainability. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute, the Committee on Environmental Improvement, and many technical divisions and local sections have been working on green chemistry and sustainability issues for many years.

Sustainability is needed to preserve the quality of life on this planet, and it represents an investment in our children and their future.

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). From ACS’s perspective, chemistry and chemistry-related activities can help in at least seven of these goals: zero hunger; good health and well-being; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; industry, innovation, and infrastructure; responsible consumption and production; and climate action. Five additional goals are considered foundational as the chemistry community strives for the seven SDGs: quality education, reduced inequalities, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and partnerships for the goals.

As chemists and chemical engineers, we play a critical role in addressing these SDGs, and our contributions are limited only by our creativity, resourcefulness, and effort. I have been fortunate to work on green polymer chemistry for several years and have organized symposia for the Polymer Chemistry, Agricultural and Food Chemistry, and Cellulose and Renewable Materials Divisions on this and related topics.

Polymer science is one area that can contribute substantially to sustainability. Advances in packaging, for example, have extended the shelf lives of foods. Polymer therapeutics, polysaccharide and protein vaccines, and polymeric drug-delivery systems have been developed to improve human health. In the area of clean water, polymeric membrane technologies and various adsorbent materials have been employed to remove toxic substances from water. In the energy arena, polymers have been used for batteries, and microwaves for some polymer reactions can save time and energy. A growing trend is to use agro-based raw materials (such as polysaccharides, proteins, triglycerides, and lignin) to produce bioplastics and biopolymers that can biodegrade and obviate the problem of microplastics. Efforts are also being made to design plastics that can be chemically recycled. Finally, the growth of plants on land (to produce biomass) and algae in water (to produce oil) has the added benefit of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Many more examples outside polymer science can be cited, and the ACS national meetings feature numerous talks that are relevant to the SDGs. The key is awareness, collaboration, and innovation. As scientists, we can teach our colleagues and students about the link between chemistry and sustainability, use greener solvents, avoid toxic reagents, and run reactions at lower temperature when possible. At a personal level, we can conserve water, drive fuel-efficient cars, buy locally grown food, and minimize waste. If we can all practice sustainability and influence our friends and relatives, we will collectively make a difference.

ACS has outlined a number of steps to promote sustainability; they involve educating and publicizing sustainability in the chemistry community, fostering innovation and collaboration, promoting sustainable chemical manufacturing, and encouraging sustainability across the globe. In fact, as ACS is establishing Chemistry Enterprise Partnerships with our sister societies around the world, the SDGs are now part of those agreements.

ACS members have many opportunities to participate, innovate, collaborate, and advance the field of sustainability and provide a better future for humankind. Let’s work together toward these goals. If you have thoughts or suggestions, write to me at

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



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