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Green and sustainable chemistry: an industry in need of a story

Industry leaders weigh in on the future of green and sustainable chemistry and how to tell the public about it

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Elsevier’s Executive Roundtable at the Green & Sustainable Chemistry Conference in Berlin (left to right): Moderator Shandon Quinn, Senior Director of New Product Development, Elsevier's R&D Solutions; Dr. Marco Mensink, Director General, European Chemical Industry Council; Dr. Eric Bischof, VP of Corporate Sustainability, Covestro; Susanne Veith, Sustainability Consultant and Government Affairs Manager, DuPont; Dr. Ettigounder "Samy" Ponnusamy, Fellow, Green Chemistry, Merck; Kate Geraghty, Global Sustainability Manager, Consumer Solutions, Dow.

Green chemistry. Sustainable chemistry.

These terms have penetrated rhetoric about the future of an industry that has catalyzed product innovation and changed our planet for well over a century. With increasing frequency, “green and sustainable chemistry” is the topic of journal articles, patents and conferences, and leading chemical companies are dedicating teams to investigate, implement and manage practices based on ensuing discussions.

Yet the existence of green and sustainable chemistry is not widely known to the public. Consumers rarely associate “green” and “sustainable” with the chemical industry. Organizations promoting green and sustainable chemistry attract only a fraction of the attention of other technologies, like those associated with e-vehicles and clean energy.

Beyond helping chemical companies re-evaluate and remediate existing products and processes to embody green chemistry principles, Elsevier cultivates leadership to bring green and sustainable chemistry into mainstream markets. In that vein, the Elsevier Executive Roundtable at this year’s Green & Sustainable Chemistry Conference in Berlin examined the disparity in perception between the scientific community and the public. Five industry leaders described their organizations’ takes on “green” and “sustainable” and shared insights on how to convey a story about their value, from supplier to end users.

The story is ours to tell

The panelists represented some of the most long-standing and pioneering companies in the industry — Dow, DuPont, Merck and Covestro — and had expertise ranging from forestry and business to chemical engineering and sustainability leadership.

Their contributions to the discussion were equally diverse, with each perspective embedded in the values, markets and customers served by the particular organization. But their presence alone showed one important communality: all their stories confirmed that the responsibility of exposing and promoting green and sustainable chemistry rests squarely on the shoulders of those who are practicing it. If efforts to become greener and sustainable are going to add value in the chemical industry, you need to tell the right story.

Five story elements for impact

So, what does such a story look like? Five story elements crystalized from the panelists’ presentations and subsequent discussion.

Dr. Marco Mensink, Director General of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), described a shift at Cefic to align industry efforts with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) “You can’t meet these goals without chemistry,” he said, and explained the importance of product stewardship, communication and innovation in bringing about the changes articulated by the UN. “Notice that I have not used the words risk or hazard,” he continued. “For me, sustainable chemistry and green chemistry are not only the answer to the SDG, but also the means to stay ahead of regulatory pressure.”

He said the story of green and sustainable chemistry must be visionary. It must anticipate and solve problems before they emerge as issues that demand regulation.

Also forward-looking, Dr. Eric Bischof, VP of Corporate Sustainability at Covestro, encouraged distancing the story from the notion that green chemistry is the antidote to a pre-existing negative perception of chemistry itself. “Instead,” he explained, “green chemistry is the means to maintain the good that traditional chemistry has achieved.”

The story of green and sustainable chemistry must evolve out of accomplishments made so far. Pushing boundaries therefore also means finding new sources of carbon for the chemicals industry by combining different technologies such as bio-based bio-fermenters, catalysis and classic chemistry. Chemical-based solutions will continue to be needed in order to bring us closer to meeting the SDGs.

Kate Geraghty, Global Sustainability Manager with Consumer Solutions at Dow, echoed this sentiment when she highlighted the importance of increasing stakeholder confidence in chemical technology. “Sustainability in home and personal care products is not just a comparison of natural versus synthetic ingredients; sustainability should focus on more than just the ingredients,” she explained. “We foster a holistic approach to sustainability that includes sustainable sourcing, reduced manufacturing footprint, enhanced product performance, the consumer experience and end-of-life considerations.” Her business has incorporated a sustainability assessment in its innovation process and, working across the business functions, she has embedded sustainability into the business strategy and operations.

Bringing technologies together opens new avenues to address sustainability across all impact points that a material or chemical can have. Susanne Veith, Sustainability Consultant and Government Affairs Manager at DuPont, showcased a circular economy project that merged expertise in packaging materials, nutrition and recycling to create lunch packets to fight malnutrition in schools in South Africa. The multi-layer packaging was then collected by the children to be recycled or upcycled together with other post-consumer multilayer plastic packaging into school desks and houses. Her example emphasized that the story of green and sustainable chemistry is collaborative: “Together, we were able to create a cyclic value chain and move materials into a second life,” she said.

Dr. Ettigounder Ponnusamy, the Fellow leading the green chemistry initiatives at Merck, related insights from a study on customer perception of green chemistry: “They wanted to know more. We looked at available information and found that it was time-consuming to read and understand.”

The story of green and sustainable chemistry will capture the public only if it is demonstrable. To that end, Dr. Ponnusamy developed and implemented DOZN, a system to calculate the relative greenness of chemical products and processes based on the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry. The measure provides “an easy way to communicate why a product is greener,” bringing much needed transparency to the discussion.

When asked what the story of green and sustainable chemistry will look like in the future, the panelists agreed that we are on a journey that has only just begun but is bound to succeed. Geraghty, of Dow, shared her hope for chemistries to shift from being “less benign” to being restorative. Veith, of DuPont, talked about a future where information technologies facilitate not only better chemistries but also their better use.

“This is not just academic,” added Dr. Bischof, of Covestro. “This just makes good business sense as well.”

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