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You may have heard the term “Green Chemistry” and wondered what it meant. It sounds appealing, yet juxtaposing.
Often, when we think of “green,” we imagine verdant pastures untouched by the machinery of humans. Yet, when thinking of “chemistry,” especially from an environmental perspective, it’s hard to imagine anything but smokestacks, oil refineries, and polluted waterways.
Fortunately, we’re not the only ones with these two images in mind. Today, scientists are working toward preventing waste in the industrial landscape and making an effort to clean it up.
Green Chemistry refers to a set of guidelines that ethical chemists and industrial leaders use in an effort to minimize waste and reduce pollution while still serving humans practically and economically.
The concept of Green Chemistry is not a political one. It was born naturally from very real environmental crises.
Green Chemistry came about as an idea prior to 1970, the year the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) was created as a U.S. government agency. In the wake of two world wars and the technology boom they caused, waterways were becoming undeniably choked with pollution. Landfills were, well, filled. And the holes in the ozone were measurable.
That's where the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry came in. Read on to discover what they are and how you as a consumer can support them.
Perhaps the most actionable of all 12 principles of green chemistry, this principle states that, “It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.”
This was the motivating idea behind LastSwab, the world’s first reusable cotton swab, and it can be applied across a milieu of disposable products.
Your household can slow the accumulation of waste - along with its negative impact on the planet - by utilizing more reusable products. No matter how small, these items add up when they hit the landfill each week.
“Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.”
So, what does this mean to you as a consumer? We suggest vetting all brands you buy from. We’re talking everything from electronics to clothing. Does the seller make an effort to use all components of its finished product with little to no waste?
For example, let’s look at Tencel. Tencel is a sustainable fabric made with a closed-loop water system, reducing water waste by 80% compared with cotton. There are many eco-friendly products that use similar waste-reducing practices through re-use.
It’s hard to believe that this green principle needed to be said! As we’ve mentioned before, synthetic products, such as fragrances, can be made from tens to hundreds of different chemicals, often with little regard to the toxicity. This principle advises against the use of harmful chemicals.
“Chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of function while reducing toxicity.”
Incredibly, scientists have been able to create replacement chemical products that accomplish the necessary task while minimizing toxicity.
“The use of auxiliary substances (e.g. solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible, and innocuous when used.”
In other words, solvents are harsh and toxic chemicals. They should only be used when absolutely necessary.
“Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. Synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.”
Today, government agencies measure emissions, regulating the amount put out into the atmosphere. Designing for energy efficiency is a core concept of green chemistry.
“A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.”
This guideline in the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry is seldom upheld. Perhaps it’s the “economically practicable” aspect of it, but oftentimes, raw materials used could be far more sustainable. Think using hemp as opposed to trees to make paper.
“Unnecessary derivatization (use of blocking groups, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.”
This principle of Green Chemistry is the chemist’s way of reiterating principle #1. Even at the molecular level, the goal is to prevent waste - which can be achieved with catalytic reagents.
“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.”
As a consumer, you can support this principle by purchasing biodegradable products whenever possible.
“Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.”
Process analysis is an efficient way to measure the creation of chemical waste in real-time. This allows industrial plants to change their methods during product manufacturing. It’s so important that the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) encourages the approach for the manufacture, design, and control of pharmaceutical manufacturing - a big contributor to polluted waterways.
“Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.”
You want to buy products from manufacturers with safe and fair working conditions for their employees. Not only does accident prevention protect employees, it also prevents harmful substances from unintendedly entering the atmosphere and waterways.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry! As an educated consumer, you can now go forth and use your dollars to vote for brands that actively practice Green Chemistry, safe working environments, and pollution prevention.