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The History of Green Chemistry and Processes

What is Green Chemistry?

The term “green chemistry,” also known as clean chemistry or benign and sustainable chemistry, refers to the design of chemicals and formulation of processes that reduce the risk to humans and minimize environment pollution. The goal of green chemistry solutions is to lessen or eliminate hazardous impacts of chemicals over a chemical product’s life-cycle. Key guidelines associated with green chemistry are outlined in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry,” which serves as the basis of creating and implementing chemicals and processes.

A Brief History of Green Chemistry

Green chemistry traces back several decades and can be linked to impactful environmental activists, such as Rachel Carson. Her 1962 publication, “Silent Spring,” helped direct the public’s awareness to pesticides and their ties to environmental pollution. Less than a decade later, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970. The EPA references its existence as the extended shadow of Rachel Carlson who is considered a leading innovator of environmental protection, a cause that has paved the way to current green chemistry practices.

President Richard Nixon’s efforts for environmental sustainability lead to the creation of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality and a Cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council in 1969. In his speech announcing the creation of the council, Nixon urged the new council and the committee “…to examine the full range of variables which affect environmental quality.” Nixon’s efforts were criticized for not being forceful enough. Eventually efforts led to the development of the NEPA, the National Environmental Policy, which called for a Council on Environmental Quality.

Recognizing the need to shift from end-of-pipeline control to pollution prevention, by the 1980s, the EPA established the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. Two decades after the implementation of the EPA, The Pollution Prevention Act (1990), (http://www.epa.gov/p2/pubs/p2policy/act1990.htm), was created to enforce eco-friendly strategies, and provide grants to states in the effort to reduce source waste.  President Bill Clinton devised the Presidential Green Chemical Challenge Awards during his presidency to reward those practicing sustainable chemistry. By the end of the 1990s, “Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry” was published. The guidelines serve as a reference for processes and practices to lessen negative environmental impact. These principles are Prevention  i.e., It’s better to prevent waste than to treat or clean waste after it’s been created, Atom Economy, Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses, Designing Safer Chemicals, Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries, Design for Energy Efficiency, Use of Renewable Feedstocks, Reduce Derivatives, Catalysis, Design for Degradation, Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention and Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention. For a description of these principles, click here: http://www.epa.gov/gcc/pubs/principles.html

As reflected in the previous decade spanning to today, there has been a shift in the emergence of green chemistry trends. As eco-awareness spreads to the consumer market and as the hazards of certain materials and chemicals become better known, companies and manufacturers are working to revamp the way they use chemicals in their products. These practices include:

  • Reducing formaldehyde (a gas linked to various health issues including cancer) use in the production of products.
  • Eliminating/reducing dyes in manufacture.
  • Eliminating ozone-depleting CFC’s in widely used products.
  • Development of technology through chemicals that lessens green impact (i.e. converting sustainable plant-based materials to low-carbon chemicals).
  • Creating a patented system to formalize and phase out raw materials for fabrication processes.
  • Developing sustainable technology used in agrichemical treatment for farming.

A Timeline of Green Chemistry Highlights

1962 - Rachel Carson, writer, biologist and environmental conservation icon, publishes the first of three installments of “Silent Spring,”—­literature that is historically tied to the launch of the environmental movement. The publication helped spread public awareness of the hazards of environmental pollution and pesticides to the environment.

1969 - President Richard Nixon establishes the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality and a Cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council. (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/) Later that year, Nixon expanded his environmental efforts by appointing the White House Committee to determine whether an environmental agency should be developed.

1970 -The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is born.

1980s/1988 - Shift from end-of-pipeline control to pollution prevention is recognized, leading to the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics in 1988.

1990 - The Pollution Prevention Act under the George H.W. Bush Administration is passed.

1993 -The EPA implements the Green Chemistry Program, which serves as a precedent for the design and processing of chemicals that lessen the negative environmental impact.

1995 & 1996 - In 1995, President Bill Clinton established the Presidential Green Chemical Challenge Awards, which served to encourage those involved with the manufacture and processes of chemicals to incorporate environmentally sustainable design and processes in their practices. The following year, the first recipient receives the award, the only award issued by the president that honors work in chemistry. Source: http://portal.acs.org/

1997 - The Green Chemistry Institute is launched.  Its vision is “…to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.” Source: http://portal.acs.org/

1998 - “Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry” is published by Paul Anastas (of the EPA) and John Warner.

2000s-Present - In the past decade, some major green chemistry achievements include the California Green Chemistry Initiative.Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bills to in 2008, which serve to develop policy options for green chemistry. Source: http://www.dtsc.ca.gov One year later, President Obama nominated Paul Anastas (of Yale) as head of Research and Development at the EPA.

Additional Considerations: Chemical Risks

Experts claim that one of the first steps toward green chemistry practice is assessing materials that are unsustainable and working with manufacturers or developers to replace them with safer or more sustainable materials. Some major risks to evaluate include: pesticides released in farming, the release of harmful toxins during processes and in products, and indoor and outdoor emissions that pose a threat to health and air quality.

Additional Sources:

http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/epa/15c.htm

http://library.certh.gr/libfiles/PDF/GEN-PAPYR-4555-GREEN-CHEM-by-LINTHORST-in-FOUND-CHEM-V-12-SS--PP-55-68-Y-2010.pdf

http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=PP_ARTICLEMAIN&node_id=830&content_id=CNBP_026133&use_sec=true&sec_url_var=region1&__uuid=08dc7152-55cc-45b2-a351-1ad7e966d610

http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/~cushman/courses/engs171/GreenChemistry.pdf

http://www.zerowaste.org/publications/gc_pres/index.html

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