By Patricia Dines
The Next STEP newsletter
(c) Patricia Dines, 2007. All rights reserved.
I just returned from my annual pilgrimage to the Bioneers conference, held every October in Marin. As usual, I come back to my daily life invigorated both by the valuable information and ideas, and by the connection with others who also care about the earth.
One of the plenary speakers this year was Paul Anastas, who conference founder Kenny Ausubel in his introduction called "the father of green chemistry" because of his pioneering work in the field.
Green chemistry (GC) is the environmentally-friendly design of chemical products and processes to reduce or eliminate the use and production of hazardous substances.
GC, says Ausubel, benefits a corporation's bottom line by creating superior products, trimming toxic waste, reducing liability, and avoiding harm to people and the planet.
Both Ausubel and Anastas described the devastation that toxics cause today, including toxic spills, worsening ocean dead zones, chemical plants vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could harm millions, and a wide range of poisons found in everyone's bodies, including newborns.
Anastas describes our current primary response to these threats as "hardening the perimeter" with guns, guards, and personal protective gear. He considers this approach flawed, both because these systems are imperfect and will fail, causing great harm (as in Bhopal), and because the costs are high but don't add to product capabilities or company profits.
GC offers a better way to address these problems &emdash; by designing our chemicals wisely from the start, so that they're less-toxic, biodegradable, safe for people and wildlife, and less vulnerable to accidents and terrorists.
Anastas says that it's a myth that we can't have our modern conveniences without poisoning ourselves. GC applications are already succeeding in a wide variety of sectors. They're also essential to solving many of our current sustainability challenges, he says, including global warming, energy production and efficiency, and a healthy food supply.
GC is becoming increasingly adopted and appreciated, with GC organizations, university programs, and awards springing up around the world. Europe is pioneering the implementation of these ideas in law. California is now finalizing its plans to adopt GC. (For more on the latter, see below.) GC work was even recognized in the 2005 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, as the Committee called the work they awarded "a great step forward for 'green chemistry' ... an example of how important basic science has been applied for the benefit of man, society, and the environment."
To assist with the implementation of GC ideas, Anastas with John C. Warner developed 12 principles of green chemistry. He says that these might seem like common sense, but unfortunately aren't yet common. Overall, these encourage scientists to:
Design processes to maximize the amount of the raw material that ends up in the final product;
Design chemicals and products to degrade to innocuous substances after use, avoiding accumulation in the environment;
Design energy-efficient processes;
Design to minimize potential for accidental release, fires, and explosions;
Avoid producing toxic products and waste;
Use safe, environmentally-benign substances, including solvents, whenever possible;
Use renewable feedstocks and reusable catalysts; and
Use real-time monitoring.
That sounds like smart chemistry to me!
RESOURCES: Bioneers Conference <www.bioneers.org>, Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Green_chemistry>
Health Care Without Harm
Executive Director, Commonweal
FOR MORE INFORMATION
* Overview, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_chemistry
* Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale www.greenchemistry.yale.edu
California's Green Chemistry Intitiative
* Background in this issue of The Next STEP VI/3
* Current status and activities, including invitation to give input by Nov. 16, 2007
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