The Right Chemistry

When the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry was announced last October in Stockholm, the new laureates -- Yves Chauvin of the Institute Français du Pétrole, Robert Grubbs of Caltech, and Richard Schrock of MIT -- won recognition for creating “fantastic opportunities for producing new molecules.” They had explained and developed a reaction known as metathesis, which allows chemists to selectively design organic molecules by trading atoms across different compounds. In search of an analogy to help the pubic grasp this concept, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences likened the process to changing partners in a dance. Then came the political statement: The advance represented a “great step forward for green chemistry,” the academy declared. It allowed chemists to slash the number of steps needed to produce a desired molecule, as well as to reduce the number of unwanted and often dangerous byproducts.

The Nobel Prize citation marks the official arrival of green chemistry. A concept that grew out of a unique collaboration between a scientist in private industry and one working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it's now making major waves in the world of science. The journal Green Chemistry, founded only in 1999, has seen its “impact factor,” a measure of how widely a journal is cited, skyrocket. And perhaps even more significantly, the precepts of green chemistry are being adopted by businesses seeking to better serve the bottom line. At a time of considerable pessimism about corporate America's penchant for attacking scientific information pointing to health risks arising from its products, green chemistry presents a happier and more positive tale -- suggesting that economic growth and environmental and health protections aren't necessarily incompatible after all.

The concept of green chemistry -- in essence, building environmental and public health concerns into the chemical design process at the outset, rather than waiting until after a substance is produced and unleashed to determine whether it's hazardous -- dates back to the early 1990s. A key intellectual reaction occurred when John Warner, a chemist with Polaroid, met with EPA official Paul Anastas (who happened to be an old friend) to discuss a new innovation that, for once, had government regulators excited rather than worried. Warner had come up with a simpler and less toxic process, based on the use of tiny crystals, to help prevent Polaroid's instant film from deteriorating on the store shelf. Anastas recognized that Warner and Polaroid had accomplished all of the EPA's pollution prevention objectives through chemical design and scientific innovation, rather than through after-the-fact regulatory action.

In 1991, the EPA launched its Green Chemistry Program. By 1996, the agency had created the annual Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, honoring companies and scientific innovators helping to prevent pollution before government regulators have to step in. In 1998, Anastas and Warner teamed up to write the influential book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, which articulated the 12 principles of their approach, including prevention (“it is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created”), safer solvents and auxiliaries (“the use of auxiliary substances [e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.] should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used”), and design for degradation (“chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment”). For the first time, the science itself made such revolutionary ounce-of-prevention ideas possible.

Warner and Anastas have continued to evangelize about their ideas and have seen them take root at major institutions. Warner founded the first green chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston (later duplicated when he moved to University of Massachusetts-Lowell). Students learn about building molecules but also about toxicology and what makes certain substances hazardous. Rather amazingly, traditional chemistry education does not include such instruction even though, as Warner points out, to get his chemistry Ph.D. he did have to learn how to translate a scientific paper into a foreign language. Anastas, meanwhile, now heads up the Green Chemistry Institute, founded in 1997, at the hallowed American Chemical Society.

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The advantages of green chemistry become immediately apparent when you apply its principles to some of the classic case studies of good chemicals gone bad -- like, for example, chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs). These chemicals were designed for a reason: Previous refrigerants had been toxic. By contrast, CFCs weren't flammable or otherwise hazardous -- at least to humans. Their popularity quickly spread, and they became widely used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and as propellants in various sprays. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that scientists first realized, almost by accident, that the long-lived chemicals were making their way up into the stratosphere and releasing chlorine atoms that, in turn, set off chain reactions that were destroying the earth's protective ozone layer.

How would a green chemist approach substances like CFCs? Not make them, to put it simply. From the very start, explains Anastas, the green chemist would think about properties of a molecule like persistence or durability (how long-lived or indestructible it is). Indeed, the “design for degradation” principle of green chemistry explicitly addresses this topic. So if a chemical -- like CFC -- doesn't degrade easily, that's a warning signal that it might have an unexpected effect when released into the world. “By addressing the problems at the design phase, you have a much greater chance of avoiding these surprises,” Anastas explains.

These days -- when many major companies have a CFC-type story in their past -- that's a message that businessmen can appreciate. Companies spend a fortune dealing with the government's regulatory process -- installing scrubbers in power plants, engaging in toxic clean ups, defending themselves in court, paying damages. On top of that, they often spend money on public relations to burnish -- or rehabilitate -- their images. Sometimes they even dole out for scientific expertise or “product defense,” so that if their products are accused of causing health risks they can fight back with a tobacco company–style strategy of doubt and denial.

Yet if companies could fully implement green chemistry -- and actually cease causing real or potential harms in the first place -- all of these costs might be cut.

No wonder, then, that green chemistry is “definitely penetrating into the market,” according to Andrea Larson, a professor at the Darden School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia who's writing a book about the economic benefits reaped by companies that pursue sustainable business practices. To be sure, Larson emphasizes, not all firms involved in green chemistry have made it a major strategic focus. That's in part because, in the words of Warner, green chemistry's “toolbox” is still 95 percent empty, meaning that it cannot yet provide solutions for most chemical problems.

Nevertheless, considerable awareness of green chemistry exists, including among major companies like Pfizer and DuPont. Even mega-corporations like GE and Wal-Mart have at least made general nods recently toward more environmentally friendly business practices. “If you're thinking long term, and positioning your company, then you'd better be on top of this stuff, or you're going to be left behind,” says Larson.

In many cases smaller companies have been the greatest innovators. Take AgraQuest, a 2003 winner of the presidential green chemistry award based in Davis, California. The company has pioneered environmentally friendly and biologically based pest control products like Serenade, a biofungicide that protects crops without leaving any chemical residue or harming beneficial organisms like bees and wasps. NatureWorks, another presidential award winner, is actually owned by agriculture giant Cargill Dow. It's making water bottles and packaging substances out of corn, rather than using more traditional petroleum-based processes for creating plastics.

Environmentalists have been rightly concerned about companies engaging in “greenwashing” -- selling themselves as environmentally friendly to enhance public relations, without actually walking the walk. But these examples -- and they're only a small sampling -- demonstrate that green chemistry has gone far beyond mere show at this point, earning serious scientific and economic recognition. Now the quest begins to fill the other 95 percent of the toolbox.

“It's a really exciting time to be a chemist,” says Anastas.

The allure of the science should help further accelerate the spread of green chemistry; so should the obvious economic benefits and competitive advantages for companies. And there's another factor as well. Increasingly, customers and investors are demanding that the companies in which they place their trust reflect their own values when it comes to protecting public health and the environment. Today, companies are increasingly realizing that if they don't go green on their own, the market may do it for them.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent and author of the recent book The Republican War on Science.