While the use of green chemistry is critical to mitigating adverse environmental impacts, there remains a gap in education of chemists and an overall lack of awareness in the industry. We sat down with John Warner, one of the founders of the field, to better understand how green chemistry is helping to enable a more sustainable future through science.
Chemistry is all around us. Even when we can’t see it, it is what makes modern life possible. John Warner — an award-winning chemist, author and inventor — points out that you don’t need to look further than a little league baseball game to see this: “The helmets they wear were invented by chemistry; the clothing they wear was invented by chemistry; the bases that have been designed to be durable were invented by a chemist. There’s not one place in the human-built world that hasn’t been advanced by chemistry.”
Yet despite how central chemistry is to our daily lives, it is often negatively associated with the harmful applications of chemicals. This aversion and misunderstanding could be lessened if people understood just how essential chemistry is and its positive impact on our health and safety.
More specifically, “green chemistry” is the roadmap to limiting chemistry’s potential harmful consequences for humans and the environment; and it actively works to predict and minimize those potential negative effects. Warner, who has more than 300 patents and is a 2014 recipient of the Perkin Medal (the highest honor awarded in the US chemical industry), is one of the founders and pioneers of green chemistry. He is devoted to applying the 12 principles of green chemistry to everything he does — and fortunately, he is not alone.
While the use of green chemistry in industry and business is critical to mitigating adverse environmental impacts, integrating it into education at all levels is a top priority for Warner. We sat down with him to better understand the importance of green chemistry and how it is helping us build a more sustainable future through science.
How did you come to build the concept of green chemistry?
JW: In the 1990s, my friend, Paul Anastas, and I realized that the field of chemistry never truly prioritized exploring the environmental and health impacts of its work. If you look at every top university, you’ll find that very few require their chemists to know anything about, say, predicting whether certain molecules will cause cancer or hurt the environment.
I saw a need to teach chemists how to best anticipate the negative impacts of their work on human health and the environment in a logical, methodical way. There has always been a desire from chemists and the rest of the world to invent chemicals that are safe and solve important problems but are also consistent with economic pathways — green chemistry gives us the tools to accomplish these goals.
What are the biggest gaps in the field that need the most attention right now?
JW: Academia has been slower to adopt green chemistry into their courses and programs; and therefore, chemists are still not being taught its tools and principles. However, a growing number of institutions in Beyond Benign's Green Chemistry Commitment are committed to transforming their teachings and practices.
On the bright side, industry has been much more responsive to prioritizing green chemistry. For example, in 1996 we started the Presidential Green Chemistry Award; and since then, almost 130 awards have been given to companies exemplifying and practicing the principles of green chemistry. In fact, Dow has won more Presidential Green Chemistry Awards than any other organization to date.
Clearly, industry has continued to find success in green chemistry, and we need that to find its way into academia. Universities — and chemistry departments, in particular — need to build green chemistry into their curriculums to ensure the next generation of chemists continues to put health and environmental concerns at the core of their work.
What can we do to improve and enhance the role of chemistry in society?
JW: I really believe that improving the understanding of chemistry is a grassroots project, starting with education at its most basic level. This is why Amy Cannon and I founded Beyond Benign. Increasing support for better K-12 STEM education centered around sustainability is absolutely necessary, especially in our most underserved schools.
Also, chemists need to be students for life — just as doctors, lawyers and teachers must take tests and undergo retraining, we need to apply the same standards for chemists. It is not enough to graduate from a university with a chemistry degree and be a chemist for the rest of your life; professionals in this field need to keep up with the direction in which chemistry is moving.
How can companies like Dow help promote green chemistry?
JW: Corporations are often picking up the pieces where academia drops off. Generally, companies are investing money into R&D efforts, creating research space in their labs that exercise the 12 principles of green chemistry, identifying a market for innovations, and commercializing solutions — things that only organizations like Dow can do. Dow is actually a supporter of our Green Chemistry Commitment. The organization has been working with Beyond Benign to help to bring its academic partners to the table and communicate the importance of green chemistry, to help to build scientists with green chemistry skills. So, companies like Dow are already helping to promote green chemistry by advocating for change in academia.
Eventually, the research needs to also be put into practice outside of the lab to solve the problems facing our society. After all, scientists didn’t set out to create problems — their focus is to find the solutions. Organizations like Dow can’t do it all — no entity alone can take responsibility for the future. Instead, every sector — whether academia, private, public or nonprofit — must collaborate to solve this era’s greatest challenges.
There’s a well-known quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” But Warner feels that to be the change, you must lead the change. To become a sustainable industry, we must advocate for scientists to be trained in green chemistry and engage those that are willing to seek solutions that consider environmental implications. Science is a process, and solutions don’t happen overnight. To make any sort of progress, we must keep taking steps — even small ones — toward better practices.