IHS Chemical Week


BLOG: Does the Chemical Industry Have Enough Knowledge of Chemistry to Become Sustainable?

10:27 AM MST | February 4, 2009 | By ALEX SCOTT

It’s a question that should be answered with a resounding yes-the chemical industry is a multi-billion dollar industry for goodness sake-but the reality is not so positive. And that has to be a major concern for an industry that talks the talk about being sustainable and in many cases is working hard to be truly sustainable but may not be able to fully execute on its goals.

Yes action to develop green chemistry is taking place at the company level among the leading manufacturers. Green chemistry is also being promoted at the level of organizations such as Socma and ACC, as well as Cefic.


But the basic scientific understanding of green chemistry among many chemists is often lacking-otherwise the industrial chemicals that are later found to adversely impact on the health and environment wouldn’t have been designed the way they were in the first place.


“Why are these [toxic] chemicals out there in the first place? Does industry just like making chemical nasties? No,” says John C. Warner, president and chief technology officer of the WarnerBabcock Institute for Green Chemistry (Woburn, MA). “It’s not that they want to pollute but that they need to be educated.”


At a briefing on green chemistry last week at the Informex specialty chemicals expo in San Francisco, Warner told an industry audience of about 200 that the green chemistry “toolbox”-a pre-requisite for the chemical industry to be environmentally and economically sustainable-is only 20% filled.


Working on the outstanding 80% is not going to be easy, however. Educational institutions only relatively recently have started teaching classes on toxicology and environmental impacts of chemistry that will lead to green chemistry capability, Warner says.


To compound matters the chemicals industry is not attracting the best students because of its image as a polluter. It is unable to convey itself as an industry that holds many of the solutions to the world’s environmental problems. “Why isn’t chemistry every kids Sputnik program? We’re doing a really bad sales job,” Warner says.


Promoting the concept of green chemistry across companies and the industry has to be a priority for the industry now. One thing is sure, adopting truly sustainable manufacturing systems will be a lot harder and take a lot more time and money without the brightest chemists of the future.  


For more on green chemistry in the coming days keep an eye out for CW’s feature story Green Chemistry: Cradle-to-Cradle Systems Take Hold, which will appear in the magazine and online at www.chemweek.com on Monday 9 February.

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