Plastic was engineered to last forever. While initially praised as a miracle material, we now know that the toxic components of plastics pose some of our biggest challenges as we seek a sustainable future. The insidious chemicals they consist of are everywhere: infiltrating our food chains, destroying our ecosystems, hindering the creation of a circular economy, and exposing us to diseases and defects. But one fundamental question about plastic pollution often never gets asked: "Why would a chemist invent a material that has negative consequences?"
John Warner, the so-called founding father of the field of green chemistry and an Oceanic Global scientific advisor, explains the only way to combat the conundrum is to provide better alternatives.
What is green chemistry?
If you look at the courses universities require students in chemistry take in order to graduate, you will find that they almost never have to take any classes that teach them what makes molecules toxic, or what makes molecules have negative impacts on the environment. The field of toxicology and environmental health sciences have been around for quite a while, and some of this knowledge is actually known. It's just that the people in the business of making new materials are not connected to them.
Imagine what chemists could do if they did receive training on how to reduce negative impacts of human health and the environment so that they could incorporate this knowledge when they make new molecules? Imagine the solutions that could be invented! This is the science of green chemistry. It is the mechanistic, molecular level science of sustainability.
Why is this important?
Why would anyone today want to be a chemist? Especially someone who cares about the environment? The only path forward to a truly sustainable future is not just to identify what is bad, but also replace these bad technologies with better ones. And the only people who can do this, invent sustainable technologies, are the chemists! So right now, what we need is more people to go into the field of chemistry, learn green chemistry and help invent a more sustainable future.
What needs to happen to make green chemistry standard practice in major industries and large corporations?
Believe it or not, I see major industries and large corporations trying everyday to bring green chemistry into their design labs. Most of the chemists that they currently have working for them are unlikely to have received the appropriate training on how to do this. But the industry recognizes the economic incentives as well. Hazardous materials are much more expensive to work with! Given a choice, who wouldn't want safer technologies. A technology that is safer for human health and the environment gets commercialized faster! So as more and more chemists become trained in green chemistry, major industries and large corporations will continue to up their game.
What can we do on a daily basis to support green chemistry and the creation of safer, healthier products?
One of the things we must do as a society is take the time to better understand the issues. Every time I hear someone say we need "chemical free" products, it's really sad. I'm sure they're well intentioned, but they don't realize that they may be part of the problem. Chemicals are the stuff of matter. Period. There is no such thing as "chemical free". If you buy a product that has "chemical free" on the label, immediately ask for your money back. Chemicals are not the problem. Harmful chemicals are the problem.
We need new chemicals that don't hurt human health and the environment. And now that the field of green chemistry is becoming more and more embraced, and universities around the world are starting to include green chemistry in their curricula, we now have a path to actually get rid of the harmful chemicals. People need to seek out the companies and the universities that are trying to do this, and support them.
One of Oceanic Global's main pillars of action is to encourage behavioral change through education. How does your work with the Warner Babcock Institute and Beyond Benign support that goal?
The Warner Babcock Institute is a group of people working to invent safer technologies. Beyond Benign is a group of people helping change the way we teach and do chemistry in K-12 education and universities. The field of modern chemistry has been around for about 200 years. It has taken humans two centuries to create the industrial world we now live in. We all must constantly push for better, safer technologies, but green chemistry is fairly new to the scene. We must also be patient. There is no magic green lever that we can pull to transform the world over night. Inventions will take time.
We must celebrate every incremental step to a safer future. One group of scientists might make a technology less toxic, and another group might make a technology more biodegradable. Neither might be seen as enough, but sadly that's the way science works. Step by step, we will get to where we need to be.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity