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Green Chemistry

Differentiating between green chemistry and sustainable chemistry in Congress

Congressional panel examines two concepts, one well-defined with history, the other newer and less distinct

by Cheryl Hogue
July 29, 2019

Experts picked at the differences between the defined field of green chemistry and the more imprecise concept of sustainable chemistry at a July 25 US congressional hearing. Their discussions could influence legislation backed by industry and academics that would focus federal efforts on characterizing and directing grant funding to sustainable chemistry.

Green chemistry has a longer history, with principles established in the 1990s, said Julie Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances.”

“The term ‘sustainable chemistry’ has been introduced more recently and possesses countless definitions” put forth by individuals, companies, trade associations, not-for-profit organizations, and governmental entities, Zimmerman told the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example, defines sustainable chemistry as “a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services.”

Tim Persons, chief scientist at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), said at the hearing that the foremost requirement for promoting the promise of sustainable chemistry is to define it and for broad agreement on ways to measure or assess it.

Another key need is “a standardized approach for assessing the sustainability of chemical processes or products,” Persons told the subcommittee. So is “better information on product content throughout the supply chain, and more complete data on the health and environmental impacts of chemicals throughout their life cycle.” Without these types of information, “stakeholders can’t make informed decisions that compare the sustainability of various products,” he said.

But the US chemical industry’s main lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, wants elasticity to be a feature. “There does need to be some element of flexibility in defining sustainable chemistry and for any criteria that are applied to it,” said Anne Kolton, an ACC executive vice president. For instance, in more arid regions of the US, chemicals or industrial processes that use water more efficiently might be prioritized over other sustainability goals, she told the panel.

ACC’s perspective on sustainable chemistry is built on two concepts, Kolton said. One involves the manufacture and use of chemicals in ways that manage the substances’ risks. The second is that innovations in chemistry help the world toward sustainability goals in ways such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, alleviating hunger, and improving the quality of life.

Zimmerman and Persons both emphasized that green chemistry is an essential component of sustainable chemistry. “Sustainable chemistry cannot be conducted in the absence of green chemistry,” Zimmerman emphasized.

This hashing over of the notion of sustainable chemistry could have implications for a bipartisan sustainable chemistry bill (H.R. 2051) introduced in April by two members of the Congressional Chemistry Caucus, Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and John Moolenaar (R-MI). The bill would create an interagency group, convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to coordinate federal activities that support sustainable chemistry. The group would have to come up with attributes that characterize sustainable chemistry.

Lipinski, who is a member of the subcommittee, discussed the bill at the hearing. He said the federal government needs to do more to provide incentives for research on chemical reactions that require less energy, manufacturing processes that generate less waste, and products that are less harmful to the environment. “If these concepts are considered at the basic research stage, companies will have more tools to create benign products while minimizing adverse environmental impacts,” Lipinski said.

Mitchell Toomey, director of sustainability at BASF in North America, expressed support for the bill, as did Zimmerman and Kolton.

“Government support for fundamental research is critical to develop and demonstrate transformational technologies where industry will not invest due to the high risk,” Toomey said. “Once proof of concept is demonstrated and perhaps some initial scale up, then industry can engage and help move the technology to the market.”

The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, supports H.R. 2051.



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