Sustainability is the overarching theme of the ACS national meeting in San Francisco this week. In a packed ballroom in the Moscone Convention Center on Monday evening, EPA Assistant Administrator for R&D Paul T. Anastas made an impassioned plea for using green chemistry and engineering to change the face of society.
Anastas, who heads EPA's Office of Research & Development (ORD), opened his keynote address by asking the audience, "Why did you become a chemist?" Some people, he said, answer that the intellectual challenges of chemistry excite them. Others want to use chemistry and chemical engineering to solve problems and make the world a better place.
"I've got good news for all of you," Anastas said. "The world needs both. Building a sustainable world is the most taxing intellectual exercise we have ever engaged in. It is also the most important for the future of the world."
The word "sustainability" is used to connote many different ideas, Anastas pointed out. "One thing is clear, however," he said. "The planet will not allow us to continue to do things the way we are doing them today. The data are clear. In terms of natural resources; water quality and quantity; climate, both temperature and ocean acidification; and fossil carbon for energy, the planet is telling us that we are not allowed to continue on our current path."
The 12 principles of green chemistry developed in part by Anastas are a "design protocol," he observed, "not a list of thou shalts." Green chemistry is not a subdiscipline of chemistry, he said, but "it is redefining the idea of elegant chemistry." For future EPA ORD research grants, "it will be considered a baseline that green chemistry and engineering will be an integral component of submissions," he told the audience.
Under Anastas' leadership, ORD will focus sharply on innovation. "For too long, protecting human health and the environment was about what you can't do," he said. "Green chemistry is about what you can create. This is all about meeting environmental and economic goals simultaneously. Addressing one or the other just doesn't finish the job."
Chemists and engineers, Anastas concluded, are among "the tiny sliver of people who have the power to change the trajectory we are on and create a sustainable society."