My career has been spent primarily working with nonprofit organizations (NPOs) that promote the development and use of chemicals, materials, and products that are inherently safer and more sustainable for humans and the environment. NPOs, often called nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), come in many colors, ranging from Habitat for Humanity and Rotary International to churches and even the American Chemical Society. They typically address a cause or set of principles, such as climate change, human rights, disease prevention, or scientific advancement. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the U.S. is home to some 1.5 million NPOs, with 80% of them having annual budgets under $1 million.
I never intended to work for an NPO. In fact, starting out as a chemist, I knew very little about them or why a scientist or engineer would ever want to work for one. But I did know that I wanted to apply science and engineering to waste and pollution problems to help improve society and the environment.
Somewhere I had picked up the idea that science was “objective,” which I interpreted as being neutral—free of opinion or bias. I wondered how I could reconcile my passion for rigorous science and engineering with my desire to solve social problems associated with chemical waste and toxics.
I was aided by the words of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who argued that you can’t get to “ought” from “is” using science. Science tells what is, but it’s through the application of moral judgment that one determines what we ought to do about it.
In practice, all the questions scientists and engineers ask are infused with subjectivity. Rigor leads good scientists to ask the “right” questions. But being a good scientist or company employee does not preclude being human and wanting to be a good steward of our planet; it also means never misconstruing science for political purposes.
Perhaps some lessons can be learned or inspiration drawn from knowing how scientists and engineers working for NPOs can and are making a difference to improve everyday chemical products and processes. I have witnessed what might be considered a great transition of the NPO community—from those applying pressure through “tree-hugging” protests and calling for bans on chemicals to those using science and engineering to find solutions for reducing toxicity and preventing pollution. As time is showing, there’s room in the environmental movement for both protests and pragmatism.
On the practical front, scientists and engineers who work for NPOs nowadays engage directly with individual companies; bring citizen and environmental concerns to bear on creating or critiquing standards, ecolabels, regulations, and policies; commission or perform original research to fill in perceived gaps; create training materials and host webinars, workshops, and conferences; and lead development of technical tools.
I began my career teaching chemistry labs at Bowdoin College, where professors Dana W. Mayo and Samuel S. Butcher were faced with unrealistic costs to remodel an old lab with poor ventilation. They at first despaired but then decided there must be a better way.
Knowing that organic lab experiments had changed little in 100 years, the two set out to revise the experiments using smaller amounts of chemicals. The resulting Microscale Organic Laboratory program led to new glassware, new experiments, shorter heating/cooling periods, and minimal waste. The new labs allowed use of interesting reagents and catalysts that were too expensive to use at the macroscale, and more use of advanced instrumentation. Witnessing this transition taught me that challenging the status quo drives innovation.
While earning a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, I assisted my mentor, Aarne Vesilind, in running a program in engineering ethics and became trained in conflict mediation. Vesilind stressed that whether one is proving causality between smoking cigarettes and lung disease or generating an environmental impact statement, it takes more than good science or engineering to come up with solutions; systemic problems need interdisciplinary solutions that are equitable and inclusive. Experience with conflict mediation opened my eyes to the power of creating a safe space for dialogue, engaging people from all sides of a problem to hear their perspectives and understand the roots of an issue, and finding areas of agreement.
After graduate school, I became a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with about 100 other scientists and engineers with interdisciplinary interests. I was placed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Chemistry Program. On my first day, I met Bill Hanson, who was then Design for the Environment branch chief. He asked me wryly how it felt to know my degree was obsolete.
With my new diploma still degassing, I asked him to explain. Hanson said: “Environmental engineering is about cleaning up waste and toxics at the end of the pipe. But the future is designing out problems from the start.” That comment has been with me ever since.
I am proud to have led the development of two technical tools, GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and CleanGredients. GreenScreen is a free method for chemical hazard assessment. CleanGredients is an online subscription-based platform that identifies greener chemicals for cleaning products. These tools are used by chemical manufacturers and by product formulators to help select inherently safer ingredients for use in their commercial products and for marketing those products. The criteria have been incorporated into standards such as EPA’s Safer Choice program and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, as well as into procurement by state governments and by brands and retailers such as Levi Strauss and Walmart.
For nearly 20 years, I have been working with early-stage or start-up NPOs that are not unlike start-up businesses. I am doing real science, and I enjoy working to create a better world. This work is not without challenges. Financial resources are often thin, and people who work for NPOs often align their passions with their work in ways that can lead to burnout and deep frustration with political obstacles.
I recently joined Northwest Green Chemistry, a further evolution of a science- and solutions-based NPO. We work with businesses, government agencies, universities, and other NPOs to promote regional economic development through green chemistry and engineering innovation. We assess alternatives to chemicals of concern in products and support entrepreneurs using sustainable design principles.
The emergence of NPOs such as Northwest Green Chemistry and the growth of “benefit corporations,” which are for-profit entities formed to promote a general public benefit, illustrate how the lines between businesses and NPOs are far more porous today than they were in the past, allowing for greater cross-fertilization. And with that comes even more opportunities for scientists and engineers in all sectors seeking to help create a thriving society and a healthy environment.
|Mission, Activities, and Technical Tools
|ACS Green Chemistry Institute
|Hosts industrial roundtables to bring together stakeholders in various sectors, including the Pharmaceutical Roundtable, Chemical Manufacturers Roundtable, and Hydraulic Fracturing Roundtable. These groups have produced tools such as a Solvent Selection Guide, Reagent Guides, and a Process Mass Intensity calculator. GCI also hosts the annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference and funds research grants.
|Hosts the Green Chemistry Commitment to promote chemical education; sponsors workshops and online courses to provide future and current scientists, educators, and the public with tools to teach and learn about green chemistry.
|Also known as the International Chemical Secretariat, is supported in part by the Swedish government. ChemSec provides expertise on chemical management policies and legislation, and it develops tools including the Substitute It Now (SIN) List, Textile Guide, and SUBSPORT, a platform for information exchange on alternative substances and technologies assessment.
|Clean Production Action
|Promotes use of safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in products and supply chains; manages the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals online assessment tool.
|Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE)
|Provides a platform to share emerging scientific research on environmental factors that can contribute to disease; hosts working groups to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between individuals and organizations in 79 countries and all 50 U.S. states, including scientists, health professionals, health-affected groups, nongovernmental organizations, and other concerned citizens committed to improving human health.
|Coordinates environmental health and social justice experts in market-based campaigns, coordinates research such as monitoring chemical emissions in communities impacted by oil- and natural gas extraction, and works to reform chemical and energy industry practices and advocate for protective federal standards.
|Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII)
|Administers the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard and Material Heath Certificates; trains and accredits assessors to help companies achieve certification.
|Ellen MacArthur Foundation
|Accelerates the transition to a circular economy through publications and partnerships with influential global partners. The New Plastics Economy initiative strives to rethink and redesign plastics for the future.
|Global Ecolabeling Network
|A global association of nonprofit ecolabelling organizations that promotes green products and sustainable services by fostering cooperation, information exchange, and standards harmonization.
|Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3)
|Provides a business-to-business network of companies working collaboratively to advance green chemistry across industry sectors and supply chains; pilots new models of collaboration such as pooling knowledge, data, and funds to commercialize new preservatives for personal care and household products and to evaluate safer alternatives to a phthalate plasticizers for wire and cable applications.
|Green Science Policy Institute
|Facilitates reduced use of classes of harmful chemicals to protect human and ecological health; provides scientific data to inform decision-making, including for policy and purchasing; performs scientific research; acts as a watchdog for regulations that lead to increased use of toxic chemicals and materials.
|Promotes sustainable materials management and has developed tools such as CleanGredients and MIQ to identify chemicals with low toxicity; convenes the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a forum to share information and best practices and create tools for developing new packaging.
|Greenpeace Research Laboratories
|Based at the University of Exeter, provides scientific advice and analytical support to Greenpeace programs; performs analysis of heavy metal and organic contaminants in environmental samples; expertise includes toxicology, organic and inorganic analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and terrestrial and marine ecology.
|Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing
|Works with scientists in industry, government, and academia to promote creation, development, validation, and use of alternatives to using animals in research; hosts workshops, symposia, and courses; researches developmental toxicity and pathways of endocrine disruption.
|Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
|Applies science to solve environmental problems; works with policy and legal experts to develop and advocate for evidence-based public policies that improve peoples' lives and protect the environment; provides scientific and policy publications.
|Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists and Engineers (NESSE)
|Provides a forum for academic researchers and professionals at the beginning of their careers to focus on solutions to sustainability challenges; promotes sustainability science and research awareness on campuses and with the public; works to incorporate sustainable science and engineering into undergraduate and graduate courses.
|Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) and the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (IC2)
|Leads partnerships between state government agencies; manages Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (IC2), an association of state, local, and tribal governments collaborating to coordinate initiatives and ensure ready access to information to identify and promote safer chemicals and products; manages IC2 Chemical Hazard Assessment Database.
|Northwest Green Chemistry
|Fosters innovation and economic opportunities through sustainable and green chemistry and engineering; performs alternatives assessments to identify safer alternatives to chemicals of concern, such as alternatives to copper-based antifouling paints; hosts technical workshops, roundtables, and a green entrepreneur webinar series.
|Develops public health standards and certification programs; tests and certifies products and systems; provides auditing, education, and risk-management solutions that help protect food, water, consumer products, and the environment.
|Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center
|Provides pollution-prevention information, including obstacles and collaborative opportunities, to decision-makers in business, government, and other sectors in the Pacific Northwest region to help them integrate sustainability strategies into their operations.
|Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange
|Provides a national network for regional pollution-prevention information centers serving government and state environmental agencies, technical assistance providers, businesses, educators, nonprofit organizations, and the general public.
|Silent Spring Institute
|Conducts and supports multidisciplinary research that serves the public interest; partners with physicians, public health and community advocates, and other scientists to identify and break the links between environmental chemicals and women's health, especially breast cancer; focuses on environmental exposure as an under-studied area that can lead to the discovery of preventable causes of cancer.