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Green and Sustainable Chemistry Conference

Posted on April 15th, 2016 by in Chemistry


It felt like an impromptu 25th birthday party for green chemistry. What a feast of speakers there were at the Green and Sustainable Chemistry conference in Berlin last week! The “Father of Green Chemistry” Paul Anastas began the conference after thoughtful opening speeches from the German Secretary of State for the Environment and the President of the German Chemical Society. We were off to a great start. Klaus KĂĽmmerer, the Conference organiser, treated us to 3 full days of top speakers from academia, industry and policy makers.

So, some of you might be asking, what is the difference between green and sustainable? Well, green chemistry is based on the 12 principles of green chemistry first defined by Paul Anastas. What makes chemistry sustainable goes further and the boundaries are still open to discussion but basically it includes reducing the amount of the earth’s resources used, regenerating what is used and eliminating toxic chemicals.

Does “green and sustainable” sound like just another trend? Before you start rolling your eyes, yawning and thinking “another doom scenario” consider: how many elements are in the average smartphone? 40. How do you recover these when they are so intricately mixed? If you know the answer to that rush out a patent it because at the moment smartphones are just one of many products not being made sustainably. Sometimes it is not only the complexity of the systems but also the way they are used: how do you recover the oxides used in suntan lotion when most of it is diluted when you go swimming? Do you have sun panels on your roof? What are they made of? How will you dispose of them? Should we concentrate on wind energy? What elements are used in the magnets of windmills? How do you recover these?

It is not all bad news: more and more chemistry university courses (and all those in China) include a green chemistry module. Some companies already prefer to employ chemists who have studied green chemistry. We are beginning to realise that the best way to solve problems is to avoid them in the first place: called “benign by design”. The Elsevier Green and Sustainable Chemistry challenge was set up to encourage young researchers in this area and received nearly 500 submissions. This year the first prize (of 5000 euros) went to Yunsang Kim for his work on an innovative textile dyeing technology that reduces waste water generation and the release of toxic chemicals.

In September 2015 the United Nations agreed 17 sustainable development goals for 2030. There was some discussion about how many of these goals contain chemistry: perhaps 9 or 10, maybe more. What is certain is that, to achieve these, chemists will have to work with technologists, policy makers and economists. An example of cooperation with economists is “chemical leasing”. Chemical leasing changes the way chemicals are sold so that products are not sold by weight but rather by what they do. Although this is usually applied to industrial applications, imagine a scenario where you want to paint your house. You pay 20 dollars for enough paint to do this job: if the paint company can increase the covering efficiency of the paint, less of their product is used and they make more profit (they still receive the 20 dollars, you still have your house painted and fewer resources are used).

One easy way to make chemistry greener would seem to be to restrict the use of toxic chemicals. Policy makers play an important role in achieving this goal. Unfortunately, getting universal agreements on reducing the use of chemicals can take a long time: such as 15 years to restrict the use of mercury. Companies are often willing to use less harmful chemicals but how do you know if your choice of replacement is better? Germany is setting up an international institution for sustainable chemistry to produce internationally recognised standards to improve knowledge of which chemicals are the safer alternative.

I hope that I have given you a taste of this conference. Interested? The next Conference will be in Berlin on 14-17 May 2017: hope to see you there! Selected papers from this year will also appear Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry.


United Nations sustainable development goals

12 principles of green chemistry

Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry


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