Yale University
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Green Chemistry: Present

[excerpts from “Green Chemistry: A design framework for sustainability” by Beach, Cui, and Anastas]

Green Chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.

The green chemistry approach seeks to redesign the materials that make up the basis of our society and our economy—including the materials that generate, store, and transport our energy—in ways that are benign for humans and the environment and possess intrinsic sustainability.

The concepts and practice of Green Chemistry have developed over nearly 20 years into a globe-spanning endeavor aimed at meeting the ‘‘triple bottom line’’—sustainability in economic, social, and environmental performance.

The aphorism ‘‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’’ is at the heart of Principle 1 of the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry, a comprehensive set of design guidelines that have guided Green Chemistry development for many years. The cost of handling, treating, and disposing hazardous chemicals is so high that it necessarily stifles innovation: funds must be diverted from research and development (scientific solutions) to hazard management (regulatory and political solutions, often).

Reviews of chemical accidents show that while the chemical industry is safer than other manufacturing jobs, exposure controls can and do fail. The consequence is injury and death to workers, which could have been avoided by working with less hazardous chemistry. Impacts on human health and the environment from dispersal of hazardous waste are similarly grim, and monumental cleanup problems are faced as a result of the ‘‘treatment’’ rather than ‘‘prevention’’ approach.

In Green Chemistry, prevention is the approach to risk reduction: by minimizing the hazard portion of the equation, using innocuous chemicals and processes, risk cannot increase spontaneously through circumstantial means—accidents, spills, or disposal.

Green Chemistry has been tremendously successful in devising ways to reduce pollution through synthetic efficiency, catalysis, and improvements in solvent technology. Alternative synthetic methods have been applied to reduce energy consumption in the chemical industry, and bio-based feedstocks are decreasing our reliance on depleted fossil resources.