John C. Warner article: Redeeming a ‘maligned science’

Chemical Watch / Global Risk and Regulation News
Global Business Briefing, March 2016 / India, Alternatives assessment/substitution
By: Charlotte Niemiec

Chemistry has made substantive changes to the way we live since the industrial revolution, said Dr Swaminathan Sivaram of India’s National Chemical Laboratories, speaking at last December’s International Green Chemistry World (IGCW) conference, held in Mumbai.

Think aspirin, synthetic rubber, nylon or packaged goods. But these innovations, he said, have become ordinary; public perception is low. Chemistry is considered “mature” technology where everything that can be done, has been done.

“It is a maligned science, associated with global warming, pollution, disasters such as Minamata, Bhopal, Seveso, Love Canal, thalidomide and DDT,” he added.

The products of chemistry also cause an enormous amount of public indignation, he said

But he added that green chemistry has the potential to change this environmental impact and its associated negative perception.

How do we redesign chemistry to protect the future? How do we communicate to stakeholders and consumers that chemistry is a responsible science? Green chemistry, which began in the 1990s, is one step towards a safer, more sustainable science, he said.

More relevant than ever

The 12 principles of green chemistry focus on preventing and reducing hazardous waste, minimising energy use and emphasise always opting for less hazardous alternatives. Rule number one: if a safer alternative does not exist, create it.

A good contender for a green product could be one derived from waste, requiring little to no energy to produce, non-toxic and either recyclable or will biodegrade with no harm to human health or the environment.

Speaking to Chemical Watch, John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and co-founder of the 12 principles, who chaired some of the panel sessions at the conference, says that it should marry together safety, performance and cost in a sustainable product that performs as well as, or better than, the original, at the same or a lower cost.

These principles have stood the test of time, he says. Two decades later, they are “as relevant as they have ever been and require no supplementation”.

Aside from its core principles, should the definition of green chemistry change in light of any confusion surrounding what constitutes “green” , “sustainable” or “renewable”? Mr Warner says it shouldn’t. He explains: “Back in the early 1990s, if one looks at the sustainability landscape, chemists were noticeably absent. The reason they were absent is because the discussions around sustainability did not include the molecular sciences; most involved chemical policy, supply chain management, alternatives assessment and other things in which ‘beakers and flasks’ research chemists aren’t really involved.”

Green chemistry, however, is the molecular level science for such chemists and the molecular science part of sustainability. “If we expand the definition to include issues that do not focus on the molecular science, we risk returning to a situation where the ‘beakers and flasks’ research chemists are no longer centre stage. This must be avoided at all costs.”

While David Constable, director of the American Chemical Society, suggests more principles could be applied in theory, of more importance is clearing up the confusion between sustainability and renewability. Green chemistry is not the same as sustainable chemistry, and “sustainability should be emphasised”.

Ten years ago, the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) found that one barrier to change was uncertainty around what green chemistry meant. However, today, Mr Warner says he visits hundreds of companies and “no one has ever said to me, ‘We are confused, we do not understand what green chemistry is’. The companies I interact with have embraced [it] as a strategy and are investing resources to further it.”

If confusion remains, he says, “cynically, I feel the companies … are setting up a smokescreen to avoid the necessary investment and justify using unacceptable materials.”

Mr Constable agrees. “People are confused about what they choose to be confused about,” but “some companies are beginning to understand that it’s often cheaper and more efficient to produce products using green chemistry the first time round, as they don’t have to reformulate later.”

Future steps for a greener world

According to a report by market analysts, Pike Research, the green chemistry market is estimated to grow from $2.8bn in 2011 to almost $100bn in 2020. To feed this growth, innovation is needed in academia, in the lab and in the process of putting a product to market. More resources are required: money, equipment, tools.

Education, however, is key. “We cannot rest until every university that gives degrees in chemistry requires students to have some minimal training in toxicology and environmental hazards,” Mr Warner urges.

There are two components, he says – moral and ethical on the one hand, commercial and economic on the other. He explains: “We must stop sending scientists out to invent new molecules and products, without providing them with some basic understanding of negative impacts.”

“As the vast majority of chemistry students ultimately take jobs in industry, one of the biggest barriers to success in the marketplace is the ability to anticipate and navigate environmental regulations,” he says.

Mr Constable says a better collaboration between chemistry and engineering is required to maximise resource efficiency, eliminate and minimise hazards and pollution, and design systems holistically, using lifecycle thinking. More time needs to be spent in the design phase, with more thought given to the end of a product’s life, to ensure the chemicals being designed are really sustainable.

Often, Mr Warner adds, “companies invent new technologies twice”. “The first invention occurs from students unaware of the ‘real world’ realities of manufacturing; a second, more experienced scientist must then step in and reinvent the technology to be consistent with the[se] realities.”

He says that if students, instead, learned some of these realities at university, companies would be more efficient and have a faster time to market. A better consideration of the human health and environmental impacts, during the invention process, would also provide a significant boost in innovation and creativity, he adds.

Ultimately, Mr Constable says: “Green chemistry is not about managing chemicals, it’s about imagining and creating chemicals that don’t have hazards associated with them.”

“It should be an idea that spurs innovation,” he says.

To regulate or not to regulate?

Companies that take a longer-term approach to development will inevitably reap the benefits, he says. As Tatiana Santos of the European Environmental Bureau (EBB) said, last year in an article for the GBB: “Sooner or later, since the substances of most concern will be regulated and/or phased out, companies using obsolete and hazardous chemistry risk being shut down.”

So should regulation, therefore, be a key driver for a more sustainable approach? Mr Warner believes it is, at best, an interim measure.

“It is more complicated than a simple cause and effect relationship,” he says. “If a better, more cost-effective alternative exists in the marketplace, chemical policy will mandate its use, support its commercial success and facilitate adoption. The problem occurs when an alternative has not yet been invented. We cannot schedule inventions or command a scientist to invent something.”

If there is no viable alternative, “chemicals policy must accommodate the gap in time.”

And there is still plenty to invent. Mr Warner argues that 10% of existing technologies are benign and 25% have available alternatives – the remainder have none.

Constable is less optimistic, suggesting instead that regulation stifles innovation. He doesn’t believe imposing regulations will help boost green chemistry as “it has rarely been shown to help.” Of more importance is integrating green chemistry into the basic principles of chemistry itself; to include it in university courses, to change how we teach the subject and conduct business processes.

“The way we practice chemistry now is completely and utterly unsustainable,” he says. A cradle-to-grave process is required if we are to achieve Mr Warner’s goal for the term green chemistry to “disappear and simply become how we practice chemistry”.

The 12 principles of green chemistry

1. Pollution prevention: it is better to prevent waste than to treat and clean it up, after it is formed.

2. Atom economy: synthetic methods should be designed to maximise the incorporation of all materials used in the process, into the final product.

3. Less hazardous synthesis: whenever practicable, synthetic methodologies should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.

4. Design safer chemicals: chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of the function while reducing toxicity.

5. Safer solvents and auxiliaries: the use of auxiliary substances (solvents, separations agents, etc) should be made unnecessary whenever possible and, when used, innocuous.

6. Design for energy efficiency: energy requirements should be recognised for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimised. Synthetic methods should be conducted to ambient temperature and pressure.

7. Use of renewable feedstocks: a raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting, whenever technically and economically practical.

8. Reduce derivatives: unnecessary derivatisation (blocking group, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be avoided whenever possible.

9. Catalysis: catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

10. Design for degradation: chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function, they do not persist in the environment, and, instead, breakdown into innocuous degradation products.

11. Real-time analysis for pollution prevention: analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time in-process monitoring and control, prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

12. Inherently safer chemistry for accident prevention: substance, and the form used in a chemical process, should be chosen so as to minimise the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions and fires.

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