By 2020, the market for “green” chemistry is expected to reach $100 billion globally, with North America seeing an increase from $3 billion to over $20 billion during the same period. This growth, essential to the future of our planet, is a sign that the industry is engaged in much-needed change. Today, 8.3 percent of all deaths and 5.7 percent of the total burden of disease worldwide are related to chemical exposure.
With the increasing attention on sustainable chemistry, the public expects companies to ensure both new chemicals, and those already in a company’s portfolio, are more environmentally friendly. This pressure is especially intense on chemists because ‘green’ and ‘chemicals’ are not words that have typically gone together. In fact, the perception today is that the chemicals industry is not doing enough to promote safe chemistry, despite the range of vital and interesting work going on in this area.
The voice of the industry
This challenge led Elsevier to bring together a range of experts at the 2nd Green and Sustainable Chemistry Conference in Berlin last year. The roundtable gave industry leaders from companies such as The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Merck and Covestro a chance to debate what counts as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ for their organizations; as well as how the industry as a whole can do more to promote the important work that is being done in this area – including raising awareness of better chemistry. The panelists each brought a unique perspective, but what they all agreed upon was that the chemical industry needs to improve how it talks about sustainable chemistry and continue to encourage new innovation.
The five principles
The conversation provided five key areas that all the panelists agreed were critical to inspiring a more sustainable chemical industry:
- Green chemistry needs to anticipate the problems it aims to solve. For example, aligning industry efforts with the UN Sustainable Development Goals cannot be done without looking at chemistry’s role – so sustainable chemistry needs to look at the regulatory challenges coming down the pipeline.
- Green chemistry should not aim to justify negative perceptions of other elements of chemistry. Instead it should focus on how to build upon the innovation of the chemicals industry and position itself as the next progressive step.
- Break down the green chemistry silo. Sustainability asks questions about how users experience products, and how they can recycle and dispose of them – the industry needs to look at how a product works in the customer context, since customers ultimately drive business growth.
- Involve the circular economy into the product life cycle. Chemical innovation is a cross-disciplinary effort; working collaboratively to create sustainable products is a great opportunity to promote the positives of better chemistry as the heart of cutting-edge materials technology.
- Inform the public and demonstrate the value of safe, sustainable chemistry. Ensure that the public understands why a product is more sustainable than conventional alternatives, and what this means practically for the consumer, the environment and the industry.
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The roundtable also discussed how sustainability goes beyond a simple binary choice for organizations. Instead, they need to understand how one choice made in the interests of sustainability can impact other areas – which demands multidisciplinary knowledge and collaboration. Chemistry is a multidisciplinary science, and as such it requires access to a wide range of information from numerous sources in order to successfully undertake research for practical innovation. But in an era of ever-expanding information – scientific output doubles every nine years – chemists need tools that make chemistry data quickly accessible, which will also reduce the time taken to find answers.
Furthermore, chemists need to acquire and develop ‘soft skills’ – such as the ability to collaborate, negotiate and communicate at all levels and across a range of disciplines. It is vital to support the development of the next generation of chemists and engineers by providing collaborative opportunities throughout their education; with other students, or other universities or companies. But this alone is not enough. It is also important to teach the next generation of scientists how to make use of their knowledge by solving real-world, practical problems.
Towards a sustainable future
The chemical industry’s journey to sustainability is in its early stages, and we can expect to see plenty of further improvement and innovation in the coming years. As the world’s population nears nine billion, and the strain on the planet’s resources grows, this will become increasingly vital. But in order to ensure that the future of better chemistry is a success, companies must invest in the necessary people, with the right skills and resources, including access to the latest digital and collaborative tools and technology. With that broad-level backing, the chemical industry can accelerate the development of sustainable solutions that meet the needs of society in the coming century.