The science and technology to produce environmentally friendly, sustainable products exists today, but Americans first need to reject the absurdity that hazardous materials need be part of their daily lives, according to Dr. Paul Anastas, widely hailed as the “father of green chemistry.”
“Some of the substances we accept in our daily lives can affect not only this generation but future generations as well,” Anastas said in an October 6 lecture in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. The accumulation of harmful materials used in consumer products, food and packaging is damaging the environment and could alter the reproductive capability of humans and animals in the future.
“The fact that we accept this absurdity when we have the power to change that reality is something we need to step back from and reflect on,” said Anastas, the assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency and a science advisor for the agency.
Anastas said that American history is filled with other such absurdities, such as denying women the right to vote, using leeches in medical practice and portraying doctors as smoking advocates in advertising.
The lecture, “Designing Tomorrow,” was part of the Roland Quest Lecture series and the first of several Science Talks that will explore a range of topics regarding how science affects daily life.
Formerly the director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University, Anastas adopted the term green chemistry in 1991, while working as a chemist at the EPA. In 1998 he co-authored guidelines that advocate using safe, environmentally benign substances that eliminate toxins and the need for costly waste disposal.
Anastas opened his lecture by showing images of what appeared to be abstract art. But when magnified, they turned out to be piles of waste generated from consumer products: 60,000 plastic bags every five seconds, 106,000 aluminum cans every 30 seconds, 426,000 cell phones every day and 2 million plastic bottles every five minutes.
“How to redesign (these products) to be sustainable is the great fundamental challenge of our time,” he said. That requires rethinking—not just tweaking—the entire process of designing and producing these products so they are sustainable.
Some practices are well intentioned, but have unintended consequences, such as using toxic pesticides to increase crop production. “We’re doing the right thing, but we’re doing it wrong,” he said.
Chemists must develop new rules of design
Earlier in the day, Anastas met with chemistry students at the Schaible Science Center and challenged the future chemists to adopt an innovative, holistic approach that considers the lifecycle of a product, starting with molecular design, to control the physical and chemical properties of materials and eliminate hazards.
Elmhurst College is addressing that challenge by incorporating green chemistry in its curriculum, with an advanced course for majors, a course on sustainability and green chemistry for non-majors and organic chemistry courses that include experiments in green techniques.
“We are changing the paradigm of how students think about chemistry,” said Dr. Eugene Losey, chair of the chemistry department. “Using green chemistry principles in the design and application of new chemicals and processes will be a natural part of the work they do when they get to graduate school and into industrial positions.”
Anastas told students that for most of the last 100 years, chemistry has created materials that served useful purposes but required “an entire industry to clean up after the manufacturing process. Now we know enough to take great strides with molecular design to change the inherent nature of substances through design.”
Chemists will have to develop design rules for new compounds to reduce hazards, particularly in the industrial sector, where manufacturers of paints, plastics, electronic components and other products may look first at the performance of a material over its toxicity.
“We can't have three tons of hazardous substances dumped every minute,” he said, noting that companies in several industries have voluntarily adopted green chemistry not only because it projects a good image but also because it is good business.
Anastas said he coined the term “green chemistry” because green not only is the color of nature but also the color of money, and businesses grasp that being green can have economic benefits by reducing waste.
“We can meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously,” he said during a question and answer session after his lecture. “The myth we’re confronting today is that the products of life can’t be achieved without using toxic substances. We have to raise the awareness of what is possible.
“We’re accepting the absurd because we don’t know there’s an alternative,” he added. Consumers can encourage development of green chemistry by the products they buy and use, he said. “Demanding this innovation is something everyone can do.”