Green Chemistry? He Invented the Term

Green Chemistry? He Invented the Term

Paul Anastas, Director of Yale's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, helps molecular architects build sustainable substances.

I grew up in the small town of Quincy, Mass., where I lived on a hill overlooking one of the most beautiful coastal wetlands imaginable. When I was ten years old, the bulldozers rolled in. This upset me so much that I tried to fight it in the usual way by circulating petitions around the neighborhood. Today perhaps two percent of the wetland still exists; the rest is a business park. My father who was a biology teacher said to me at the time that if you really care about something you have to understand it deeply in order to protect it. More than anything else, that set me on track to become a scientist.

After earning a BS in chemistry, I went on to graduate school where I focused on the total synthesis of natural products to make anti-cancer compounds. This research eventually became personally difficult because so many good people I knew were being diagnosed with and dying of cancer. Roger Garrett, the founding chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's Industrial Chemistry Branch, had followed my work on structure activity relationships. In 1989 he off ered me a position at EPA where, instead of trying to treat or cure cancer by making new molecules, I was able to think about how molecules could be created so that they never cause cancer in the first place.

In 1991 I coined the term "green chemistry" and developed and launched the US EPA Green Chemistry Program. The concept expanded rapidly. Green chemistry wasn't just about cancercausing molecules; it was about toxicity from the point of synthesis through all phases of the chemical life cycle. In 1997 I was awarded the EPA Silver Medal for designing and developing the program, which is currently based in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances, and is best known for administering the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. The achievements of the award winners, excluding nominees, account for removing or preventing the generation of enough hazardous substances to fill a train of boxcars 200 miles long. And this has occurred while maintaining or increasing commercial profitability. Above all, the fi eld of green chemistry has shown that economic and environmental needs can be met simultaneously.

After establishing the US EPA Green Chemistry Program, I served during the Clinton and Bush administrations as Assistant Director for the Environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology, Policy Chief of the Industrial Chemistry Branch and as the Director of the US Green Chemistry Program. During those years I focused on writing about and promoting green chemistry principles. I was astonished when Teresa Heinz delivered the news that I had won the Heinz award for environment in 2006. This moved me tremendously. Senator Heinz was a visionary, and Teresa Heinz is an environmental movement legend. When I received the phone call from her, she asked if I was aware of the Heinz awards, and at that moment I was certain she was going to ask me if I would serve on the judging panel. When she delivered the news I was speechless. I was so proud to be in the company of the other winners.

Although science will not be the only element in any government decision, it should be a part of every decision. So far President Obama's administration has demonstrated an early recognition that science is a fundamental building block of policy and that it needs to be a piece of the wide range of policy decisions a government makes. Many of our attempts at environmental regulation have been mandates for technological bandages that didn't always foster innovation. Though some accomplished the desired goals, the approaches were often costly and inefficient. The next generation of actions taken by government in concert with NGOs and industry needs to be far more about innovation and thoughtful design.

Green chemistry uses the same talents, creativity, and expertise as traditional chemistry and engineering but from a new perspective. The research I do in my current position at Yale is focused on achieving increased understanding of the molecular basis of sustainability so that chemists—molecular architects—can learn to design substances to have these critical properties. The green chemistry imperative says that because we now understand the molecular basis of hazard, we have an obligation to design molecules so they don't cause harm to humans or the environment. Unfortunately, human and institutional inertia can be obstacles to living by the imperative. For instance, students are intensely eager to learn about and apply the principles of green chemistry but may not have access to instruction until graduate school. We can do a better job of showing students that science and technology off er a path for those who want to change the world.

There is a real understanding that green chemistry is the way people want to go, but we need to figure out how to facilitate the necessary shift in our molecular infrastructure. We are currently getting tremendous performance from chemicals, but at a great cost. The only way to address the overwhelming challenges we face is to address them at the most fundamental level. This means considering feedstocks and the way they are manufactured, and then biodegradability at the end of the product life cycle. I hope that my work will highlight the power and potential molecular scientists have to help the world even more dramatically than we thought.