History of Green Chemistry

Origins of Green Chemistry

[excerpt from “Changing the Course of Chemistry” by Anastas & Beach]

The idea of green chemistry was initially developed as a response to the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which declared that U.S. national policy should eliminate pollution by improved design (including cost-effective changes in products, processes, use of raw materials, and recycling) instead of treatment and disposal.  Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is known as a regulatory agency, it moved away from the “command and control” or “end of pipe” approach in implementing what would eventually be called its “green chemistry” program.  

By 1991, the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics had launched a research grant program encouraging redesign of existing chemical products and processes to reduce impacts on human health and the environment.  The EPA, in partnership with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), then proceeded to fund basic research in green chemistry in the early 1990s.  

The introduction of the annual Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards in 1996 drew attention to both academic and industrial green chemistry success stories.  The Awards program and the technologies it highlights are now a cornerstone of the green chemistry educational curriculum.  

The mid-to-late 1990s saw an increase in the number of international meetings devoted to green chemistry, such as the Gordon Research Conferences on Green Chemistry, and green chemistry networks developed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy.  

The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry were published in 1998, providing the new field with a clear set of guidelines for further development (1).  In 1999, the Royal Society of Chemistry launched its journal Green Chemistry.  

In the last 10 years, national networks have proliferated, special issues devoted to green chemistry have appeared in major journals, and green chemistry concepts have continued to gain traction.  A clear sign of this was provided by the citation for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Chauvin, Grubbs, and Schrock, which commended their work as “a great step forward for green chemistry”


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.


Green Chemistry: Future

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

Many challenges still lie ahead, and the solutions will be found not only in the discipline of chemistry but at its interfaces with engineering, physics, and biology. 

New developments in toxicology such as predictive toxicology and toxicogenomics are making it ever more possible to advance the most important concept in Green Chemistry: design.  

Green Chemistry must establish a comprehensive set of design principles and interdisciplinary cooperation to move toward routine consideration of hazards as molecular properties just as malleable to chemists as solubility, melting point, or color.

The brief history of the field of Green Chemistry is marked with extraordinary creativity and accomplishments in achieving the dual goal of merging superior environmental and economic performance. This has generally been accomplished through the important tactic of improving a single important element or characteristic such as toxicity, persistence, or energy consumption. 

The powerful reality that is beginning to be realized and that must be exploited in the future is that the Principles of Green Chemistry can be approached as a unified system. 

Rather than thinking of the principles as isolated parameters to be optimized separately, one can view the principles as a cohesive system with mutually reinforcing components. 

This approach will be particularly important as we strive to understand the fundamentals of sustainability. While many of the current approaches seek to address important elements of sustainability, e.g., energy, or water, or food, it is important to recognize that all of these elements of sustainability are inextricably linked. 

Therefore, one important strategy will be to address these interconnected issues at the place where they all intersect: the molecular level. While no one would argue that this makes the challenges easy, it does become conceptually more straightforward through the principles of Green Chemistry.