Sometimes advances in science and technology lead to innovations that make regulatory programs less costly and more beneficial. One such area of science and technology is green chemistry.
Also known as sustainable chemistry, green chemistry is a way of thinking about the design, development, and implementation of chemical products and processes in order to minimize environmental harm and/or maximize net benefits to society.
Green chemistry is not new—it has been around and evolving for decades, if not centuries. What is relatively new is the conscious effort of chemists and chemical engineers to design new processes and new chemicals with the express idea of being “greener”.
Such efforts have been noticed and rewarded. In both 2001 (Knowles, Noyori, Sharpless) and 2005 (Chauvin, Grubbs, Schrock) the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for research characterized as green chemistry.
Since 1996, EPA has recognized the best examples of green chemistry with a Presidential Green Chemistry Award. When reading the list of Presidential green chemistry award winners on the EPA website, one can see the relationship between regulation and green chemistry: water-based paints to avoid the formation of volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog, more targeted pesticides that reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic chemicals, bio-based plastics that do not persist in the environment, etc.
Last year, the Dow Chemical Company won the award for a pre-composite polymer. When applied to white paint, the polymer improves the dispersion of the titanium dioxide pigment, thus decreasing how much pigment is needed (reducing cost) and also improving the coverage of the paint (increasing quality): a true win-win for consumers and producers.
The policy incentives for green chemistry are not a passing fad: just look at current legislative proposals, some of which serve as a “carrot” (e.g., through federally-sponsored research and development) and some as a “stick” (e.g., through new regulatory programs).
Perhaps that is the appropriate way to view green chemistry: as a journey and not as the destination. The acknowledged “founding fathers” of green chemistry, John Warner and Paul Anastas, do not see green chemistry as something that can or should be mandated through regulation.
What has become clear over the last twenty years is this: the “green” in green chemistry is as much a reference to saving money as it is to saving the environment.