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Four Pillars to Building the Future of Sustainable Chemistry
10:14 AM MDT | August 30, 2011 | By THERESA KOTANCHEK
Human progress means something different today than it did a few years ago. Once, it meant advancing our lifestyles in a way that increased consumption. However, the unintended consequences included a decrease in natural resource supplies and a dramatic change in the ecosystems around us. Today, we face global challenges that have changed that paradigm. Therefore, people, communities, companies, governments, and education systems must change accordingly.
Over the past century, global population has grown by more than five billion people, and in the next four decades, it will grow by two billion more. With a booming population comes the urgent need for alternative energy, affordable food supply, adequate housing, and clean water. Meeting these needs in a sustainable way is the new definition of human progress. With more than 95 percent of the world’s produced goods using chemistry as a building block, our industry plays a vital role in enabling sustainable solutions, and in turn, human progress.
However, the complexity of global challenges will not be solved by chemists alone. Collaboration between chemists, engineers, industry, academia, NGOs and government is essential to uncover truly sustainable solutions. Universities have a role to teach the principles of sustainable chemistry and engineering, enabling the next generation to incorporate sustainable chemistry into our collective future.
The future of sustainable chemistry requires understanding and embracing four key principles:
Energy Footprint: Energy is at the center of many of the world’s challenges, because energy is key to providing food, shelter, communications and transportation. Not all energy is created equal - the source of the energy, and its sustainability benefits or disadvantages, is as important as the amount of energy required. More energy efficient processes are not necessarily more expensive. Focusing on energy efficiency can lead to significant savings, both economically and environmentally.
Reduced Hazard: We must apply the principles of sustainable chemistry by designing chemical solutions that minimize hazards. We can achieve this by designing safety into products, processes and process chemicals, helping to ensure that products and systems are safer for human health and the environment.
Atom Economy: The principle of atom economy helps us address efficiency by minimizing energy inputs and maximizing energy outputs. Atom economy requires consideration of all mass inputs to a product at all design phases, minimizing waste streams and working to reduce the number of process steps wherever possible.
Holistic Design: Finally, we need to incorporate an entire cradle to cradle design approach, assessing the relative impact of what we do and make on water, energy and land. Holistic design aims to recycle rather than deplete resources, such as utilizing waste from one process as an input elsewhere. For new products, life cycle assessments must be conducted throughout the development process, from conceptualization to production.
On Tuesday August 16th, I participated in The Future of Sustainable Chemistry, a virtual conference that featured 30 leading global thinkers exploring how sustainable chemistry can be used to help solve the world’s most complex challenges. The entire conference is still available for viewing and I invite you to join the ongoing global dialogue continuing post-event on the future of sustainable chemistry and what it takes to get there.
The Future of Sustainable Chemistry is the third virtual conference in The Future We Create series, an initiative to help encourage interest in chemistry among young people, and to generate enthusiasm for the creative future of the science during the 2011 International Year of Chemistry. Follow The Future We Create on Facebook and Twitter to lend your perspective to the conversation through social media channels.
As chemists, scientists and engineers, we can help chart the course for a sustainable future. Our actions are crucial to solving world challenges today and tomorrow. What are you going to do to help further sustainable chemistry?
Theresa Kotanchek is v.p./sustainable technologies and innovation sourcing at Dow Chemical.