Historically, the chemical industry has not exactly been regarded the epitome of sustainability. Chemical pollutants have left their mark on the atmosphere, water systems and soil. Some chemical end products created caused ecological imbalances, while others have had adverse health effects on consumers.
Window of opportunity
The time has come to shed this reputation. The urgency of climate change and accompanying uncertainty in the oil markets have created a window of opportunity. The chemical industry now has the chance to become a solution provider to the most pressing environmental concerns.
The characteristics of the chemical industry – its interlacing with almost every other industry – means that it is in a great position to do so. According to the UN Environment Programme, chemicals and waste affect almost all aspects of development. Crucially, it states that sound management of chemicals and waste “is relevant for, and supports the implementation of many other, if not all Sustainable Development Goals.”
Enter: Green chemistry.
Already back in 1991, US chemists Paul Anastas and John Warner came up with the concept of green chemistry – the design of products and processes that minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances. Twelve principles, which inter alia include biodegradability and toxicity reduction, guide the molecular design process.
In short, it is not about remediation but marks a fundamental change of approach. Instead of trying to clean up pollution, green chemistry is about preventing pollution in the first place. It is a philosophy that applies across all areas of chemistry and across the life cycle of a chemical product.
The last 25 years
Twenty-five years after the term was coined, green chemistry can now boast some major achievements, ranging from bio – as opposed to oil – based feedstocks for chemistry, products free from the chemical compound Bisphenol A (commonly known as BPA) to advances in biocompatible, biodegradable plastics.
Despite these achievements, green chemistry has remained an industry underdog. Mainstream adoption has been hampered by the view that green chemistry is an environmental activity, rather than one that leads to substantial economic benefit.
However, as previously indicated, the business case has strengthened over the last few years. Environmental consultancy Trucost, tasked to look into the business and economic case for safer chemistry, concluded that the global market for green chemistry is expected to grow from $11 billion in 2015 to nearly $100 billion by 2020. This has led to claims that we have entered the “golden age of green chemistry.”
The next 25 years
Favourable framework conditions and the increasing pace of innovations in green chemistry give reason to believe that the next 25 years will be even more exciting. Reflecting on our engagement work with major chemical companies, we can only concur. Green chemistry increasingly appears on the radar of the industry’s heavyweights – not simply as a mechanism to manage regulatory risk but more and more as an economic opportunity.