Scientists Turn From Brown to Green Chemistry

Joan Lowy

August 1, 2005

A quiet revolution to discover more environmentally-friendly products and processes is under way in one of society’s most polluting industries.

Called “green chemistry,” the idea is to make chemicals using less toxic or environmentally-benign feedstocks and to develop chemical manufacturing processes that take fewer steps and therefore use less energy, water and potentially harmful substances. While the idea has been around a long time, it has only begun to gather steam in recent years.

Although not as widespread as industry and environmentalists would like, a new generation of chemists is gradually being introduced to the concept of green chemistry—as opposed to the old “brown chemistry”—in high schools and colleges across the country.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Science Foundation have been underwriting green chemistry research for the past decade, the fruits of which are beginning to be seen.

It also has become easier to persuade manufacturers to adopt green chemistry principles because it has been repeatedly demonstrated that environmentally-friendly products and processes are often cheaper, said Paul Anastas, a former White House and EPA official who now heads the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society.

“This is not some kind of simply theoretical approach,” said Anastas, who coined the term “green chemistry” while at EPA in the early 1990s. “There are demonstrated and quantifiable benefits to human health and the environment, as well as profitability.”

Green chemistry products and processes have reduced the annual production of hazardous waste by 3 billion pounds, while saving 40 billion gallons of water a year, according to EPA. Estimated energy savings are 22 billion kilowatts a year.

“The bottom line is to help people do what they want to do, but more safely,” said Mary Ellen Weber of EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

The pharmaceutical industry, for example, generates up to 220 pounds of waste for every 2 pounds of drug produced. But drug giant Pfizer has found that where it has applied green chemistry principles, the amount of waste produced dropped to as low as 11 pounds per 2 pounds of drug.

At commercial volumes, that equals hundreds of thousands of pounds annually of reduced waste for each product where Pfizer has succeeded in finding a greener alternative.

“There is a double economic benefit here,” Berkelely Cue, who heads Pfizer’s green chemistry program, told the House Science Committee. “We are not purchasing raw materials that are lost to unwanted byproducts and we do not incur the expense costs associated with treating and disposing of this waste.”

For decades, a key ingredient in anti-cancer drugs was made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, which takes about 200 years to mature and is found in sensitive ecosystems. Drug companies were able to switch to a European yew tree, which is widely cultivated, but processing the ingredient involved using a lot of chemicals and other resources, including 13 solvents.

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. received an award from EPA for developing a process for making the anti-cancer ingredient that eliminated the use of 10 solvents and six drying steps, which saved energy. The process also uses only plant-cell cultures, which saves trees.

Until recently, more than 90 percent of pressure treated wood was treated with a preservative that contained arsenic and other toxic chemicals. In 2002, EPA gave Chemical Specialties of Charlotte, North Carolina, a green chemistry award for developing a non-toxic alternative that uses alkaline copper quaternary, calling the product one of the most dramatic pollution prevention advancements in recent history.

In the carpet industry, green chemistry has helped reduce the water required for dyeing a square yard of carpet from 14.9 gallons in 1995 to 8.9 gallons in 2002, according to the Carpet & Rug Institute, a trade association for the industry. The energy required to make a square yard of carpet has been reduced by nearly a third, the institute said.

Some carpet companies are making carpet fiber from recycled plastic soft drink bottles. One EPA green chemistry award winner was Cargill Dow’s development of a polyester-like fiber made from corn that can be used to make carpets or clothing.

However, some environmentalists say green chemistry amounts to the chemical industry attempting to put a happy, green face on its pollution. Instead of adopting green practices for their main products, chemical companies tend to look at green chemistry as an offshoot to their main business, said Rick Hind, head of the toxics program at Greenpeace USA.

“The deeds don’t match the words,” Hind said. “Right now it’s too much potential and not enough actualization. We are confident that in most cases, and for most large volume dangerous substances, there are safer alternatives. We would call it clean technology because you don’t always use a chemical to replace every chemical.

“There is plenty of profit to be made from being green, but you can’t do it by dabbling,” Hind said. “You have to make a commitment to it.”