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Green Chemistry Means Business

Six months can seem like an eternity. For the traveler on space shuttle traveling from the Earth to Mars. For the aging major league slugger during the typical baseball season. For the child waiting for the “age-and-a-half” to become whole with a shiny new bike and a cake.

Really, though, six months go by in a flash and its merely a blink in the lifespan of the sustainable science movement.

Through my work with the ACS Green Chemistry Institute, I have come to understand how imperative it is that we advance the green chemistry and green engineering cause quickly and permanently.

The mission of our industry must be to catalyze and enable the implementation of green chemistry and green engineering principles into all aspects of the global chemical enterprise.  The key to achieving our goal is the introduction of sustainability to the chemical business community, especially as the global economy is trending towards sustainability.  It is increasingly important to consumers to be “green” and companies are racing to meet consumer demands.  It is now up to the scientific community, the creators and innovators, to facilitate that transition.

Becoming green across the globe is, quite literally, a challenge of global proportions.  Already we have seen major efforts in the pharmaceutical and formulated products industries to improve their chemical processes.  New drugs are being created with minimal waste and more efficient yields.  Cleaning products have been reformulated to meet green standards.  Adhesives are being created with soy derivatives and water bases, helping eliminate the need for formaldehyde.  However, there is still a long way to go in making sure that all industrial and consumer products are sustainable.

One area that must be part of the initial work is finding ways to minimize or even eliminate waste.  Last year, the U.S. threw away over 250 million tons of waste, while Europe disposed of 1.3 billion tons.  As global population and product demand continues to escalate, these numbers will only rise.  It is estimated that by 2010, China will consume 35 percent of the world’s iron ore, 30 percent of the world’s aluminum, and 25 percent of the world’s zinc.  As developing countries continue to strive for the “Western lifestyle” demand for raw materials and energy will exceed the sustainable capacity of our planet.

Serious steps need to be taken in order to develop new technologies that are more energy efficient and based on raw materials that are renewable and/or recyclable.  Further, it is critical that we develop new sources of renewable, clean energy.

While these changes represent the front-line of the march towards sustainability and have obvious benefits to society and the planet, the benefits for business are also clear.  As companies integrate green chemistry into their business plans, they must measure both the potential cost savings and the enhanced revenue streams.  Green chemistry offers differentiated cost savings, or the ability to produce a competitive or superior product at a lower cost.  Additionally, green chemistry helps open new markets, process new patents, enhance and protect a company’s brand, and improve corporate reputations.  Green chemistry is no longer a concept.  We now have real, meaningful, commercial examples that demonstrate a good return on investment for sustainability, such as the numerous industrial innovations that have been winning Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge awards since the program was launched in 1996.

We all need to be committed to helping the chemical industry realize its sustainable future, meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of new generations to meet their needs tomorrow.

As social ecologist Peter Drucker once said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it!” The future, after all, will be here in a blink.

Bob Peoples, Ph.D. is the Director of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute.

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