The chemical manufacturing industry touches every aspect of modern life. From apples to Zoloft, there is virtually nothing that doesn’t require chemicals to produce. In the 1990s, amidst growing awareness of the hazardous impacts of the chemical industry, the green chemistry revolution was launched by American chemists Paul T. Anastas and John Warner. Their 12 Principles of green chemistry continue to guide industry’s efforts to prevent negative effects on people and the planet.
While it may seem obvious that greener chemistry is a good idea, as is true for most things, there are pros and cons to green chemical manufacturing. In order to consider them, it’s helpful to look more closely at what the chemical industry does.
If you took chemistry in high school, then you’ve learned the fundamental processes involved in chemical manufacturing: substances are combined to create new substances. The materials you start with are reactants, and when you put them together they transform to become products. At least one of those products is the desirable chemical. Everything else left over from the reaction is a waste.
Often, reactants are mixed in a solvent, which is a liquid that breaks them down and sets the stage for the transformation. Sometimes a catalyst is required. This is a substance that helps the reaction take place, but isn’t used up in the reaction. Solvents and catalysts can often be purified and reused. Reactions may also require special conditions in order to happen, like high temperatures or low pressures. Creating these conditions can require a lot of energy.
When Anastas and Warner developed the 12 principles, they examined every aspect of the above process to see how chemistry could be made cleaner and safer. Green chemistry includes everything from using reactants that are a renewable resource to ensuring chemical products eventually degrade into something safe rather than persisting in the environment.
There are many potentially positive outcomes of green chemistry. Going green can benefit society as well as manufacturers. For example:
There are some potential downsides to the move toward greener chemical manufacturing. For example:
The chemical industry and the public are in agreement about the desirability of greener chemistry for the benefit of humanity and our planet. In every step toward accomplishing that goal, however, careful consideration needs to be given to the pros and cons of each new change that is implemented.
Philip Jessop and Walter Leitner,“Thoughts on Green Chemistry from the new Chair of the Editorial Board.“ Green Chem., 2017, 19, 15-17. DOI: 10.1039/C6GC90126C
Roger A. Sheldon, “Green chemistry and resource efficiency: towards a green economy.” Green Chem., 2016, 18, 3180-3183. DOI: 10.1039/C6GC90040B.