Today's plenary talk by Julie Zimmerman of Yale University is titled, "Nourishing the Green ChemisTREE." At Yale, Zimmerman focuses on applying green chemistry and engineering principles to the innovative design of products, processes, and systems; assessing benign alternative chemicals and materials; designing and analyzing policy for sustainability, particularly related to water use and corporate environmental behavior; and developing water treatment technologies for developing communities.
C&EN caught up with Zimmerman to get a preview of her plenary lecture and to get her take on how academic and corporate attitudes toward green chemistry and engineering have evolved over the past decade. This email interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the meaning of the title of your talk, "Nourishing the Green ChemisTREE"?
In a recent paper (Green Chem. 2018, DOI: 10.1039/C8GC00482J), a team of which I was proud to be a part did a metareview of the field of green chemistry. Using a metaphor that has been used previously—the Petroleum Tree, for example [which shows as its leaves the many products made from crude oil]—we constructed the Green ChemisTREE. The twelve "branches" of this tree are the twelve principles of green chemistry. The tree's leaves are the areas of scientific discovery over the past 20 years since the principles were first published in 1998.
While there have been literally hundreds of reviews within the field of green chemistry, we believe this is the first metareview [an analysis organized by activity within each principle that discusses tools and metrics available, as well as future challenges for the field]. It shows an astounding productivity in terms of scientific discovery that will likely amaze anyone who looks at it. However, taking the metaphor of the tree another step, every tree needs to be nourished, or it will die. Trees need light (awareness and education) and nutrients (funding and diverse perspectives). And no tree is alone in the forest. What are the other trees that interact with and influence the health of the Green ChemisTREE? Green engineering? Toxicology? Policy? Business?
What are the main points you hope attendees will take away from your lecture?
The scientific advances—as represented by the leaves—are astounding, but the purpose of a tree is not simply to grow leaves. It's to enable an ecosystem and a habitat. It's not our goal just to do science. It's our goal to enable and empower a sustainable world.
Having a healthy tree and a healthy forest requires more than leaves. Our field requires more than folks just publishing papers. It requires an infrastructure and a community, with some people playing very different roles ranging from communication, to advocacy, to financial investment.
In a 2015 Science editorial you cowrote with Paul Anastas, "Toward Designing Safer Chemicals," you wrote, "If traditional analyses can be coupled with integrated systems approaches, then the knowledge gained about the nature of complex systems may well lead to the design of chemicals that are compatible with life" (DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6736). What are the main barriers scientists face today that prevent them from moving past the thinking that "chemical A has consequence B" toward "chemical A has possible consequences across all of system B"?
Most scientists are still trained in reductionism. Reductionism first, last, and always. No wonder—reductionism has transformed the world in the past 200 years and brought about modern life. However, it has also been one big part of bringing about unintended consequences.
Sustainability is a complex nesting of systems in systems that doesn't lend itself to a reductionist-only approach. Yet we still try to fit the square peg of quantitative metrics into the round hole of sustainability. This is a difficult transition for people to make. People are not used to this. It's out of their comfort zone. It doesn't fit with existing models. The experts in the old ways of thinking are not the experts in the new ways of thinking. Intellectual inertia is a bear.
One of your interests is policy design and analysis for sustainability, particularly related to water use and corporate environmental behavior. What kinds of policy design are most effective in influencing corporate environmental behavior?
Just as there needs to be innovation in our science, technology, products, and processes, there also needs to be innovation in our policy and methods of policy-making. In the same way that we need to apply systems thinking to product design and molecular design, we need to apply it to policy design. In that way, the question becomes not, "How do you influence corporate behavior?" but rather, "What is the set of incentives, rewards, and drivers where the interests and desires of corporations, consumers, public health advocates, environmentalists, and the environment are aligned rather than structured as a zero-sum game?"
From your perspective, how have attitudes, both academic and corporate, toward green chemistry and engineering changed in the past decade?
There's so much green chemistry taking place within business throughout the supply chain that goes unspoken. However, I'm lucky enough to work with a large number of corporations across industry sectors and investors, so I get to see what many people don't get to see. In business, big companies use green chemistry to do what they've always done, but do it better. Small disruptive companies use green chemistry to do a better thing. Those that view the principles of green chemistry and engineering as a system rather than isolated criteria are being far more transformative.
In academia, there are thought leaders and institutional leaders who are now in place to implement the ideals they espoused decades ago. The thought leaders will displace the old guard, but in academia, that's a slow process because many of the rewards and incentives are a function of the status quo. While I'm never happy with the kinetics of this transformation, I know that intellectual and practical thermodynamics are on our side.