by Henning Friege (N³ Thinking Ahead!)
Sustainable chemistry is an emerging concept that has a number of interfaces with other topics (Fig. 1). In the complicated world in which we live, one-dimensional solutions for complex issues are frequently insufficient because they often pose new problems elsewhere. In the words of US philosopher H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” From my professional experience with the interfaces between chemistry and resources, waste management, water and health, a holistic concept such as sustainable chemistry is not easy to realize, but it is this way of thinking that we need in order to achieve the sustainable development goals. Hence sustainable chemistry will not occur as a big bang, but as many incremental steps forward. Read more…
Sustainable chemistry, first described by the OECD in 1998 as “a scientific concept”, underscores the necessity to improve efficiency in our use of natural resources to meet human needs through chemical products and services. Already twenty years ago, this approach focused on the design, manufacture and use of “efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes”. Today we need an update: First, the links between sustainable chemistry and the the SDGs should be indicated clearly. Second, chemicals in products feature specific functions to provide explicit purpose. This perspective also opens our eyes to non-chemical alternatives and business models such as chemical leasing, which targets economic success through less need for chemicals on the one hand and safer use on the other. Third, the further fate of chemicals in a product’s lifecycle must already be taken into consideration in the product design phase in order to avoid an unnecessary waste of materials (especially scarce resources), prevent damage to the environment by any foreseeable use and use energy as efficiently as possible.
As can be seen in an important diagram by Klaus Kümmerer and James Clark (Fig. 2), sustainable chemistry includes all those aspects of a product which are related to sustainability. The diagram also shows that sustainable chemistry builds on the principles of green chemistry. Obviously, the use of toxic chemicals especially in sensitive applications cannot be sustainable. On the other hand, wrong application may devaluate a green chemical and lead to unsustainable solutions. Of course, there will be no sustainable chemistry without safe and sound management of all chemicals and waste.
The sustainable chemistry concept will therefore be a useful tool for the further development of SAICM (as we have demonstrated in a policy paper presented at the first meeting of the Intersessional Process) and other strategic approaches in environmental policy. An example: Composite material including carbon fibre etc. has been put on market to decrease weight and thus CO2 emissions during application. Innovations of this type are in line with SDG No. 7 (“Materials for energy efficiency”) but in contradiction to SDG No. 12 (“Closing materials cycles as efficiently as possible”) because these products are not designed for recycling. At the end of the product’s lifetime, recovery of resources from such materials is almost impossible. On the other hand, we are obliged to dispose of certain used products or materials which are now classified as hazardous. Many waste flows should therefore not be recycled in order to avoid further threats to man and environment.
It is therefore very important to define, develop and implement sustainable chemistry in order to avoid unsustainable solutions. If trade-offs are inevitable, they should at least made transparent and discussed with the aim to find the most sustainable way forward.
The road to sustainable solutions is a long one - that holds also for sustainable chemistry, which it is not a new sub discipline of chemistry but instead it is a cross cutting approach: The sustainable chemistry concept helps to detect and avoid stumbling blocks along our way. I am proud to be part of the ISC3 project: the centre will provide guidance for sustainable chemistry and be the scout on our route to sustainability.
- Kümmerer K, Clark J: Green and Sustainable Chemistry, Contribution to: Textbook on Sustainability Science, Springer (Eds: Michelsen and Heinrichs), 2016, Link
- Friege H, Zeschmar-Lahl B: Beneficiary contributions of the concept of Sustainable Chemistry to SAICM beyond 2020, 2017, Link
- Blum C, Bunke D, Hungsberg M, Roelofs E, Joas A, Joas R, Blepp M, Stolzenberg H C: The concept of sustainable chemistry: Key drivers for the transition to sustainable development. Sustainable Chemistry and Pharmacy 2017. Link
Henning Friege has a long-standing career in environmental management. His background is chemistry (Ph.D. 1978). Since 2014, he has been a partner of N³ Thinking Ahead and currently responsible manager for the ISC3 project. He also lectures on resource management and is Honorary Professor for Sustainability Sciences at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. He also has extensive experience in the management of corporate entities and administrative bodies.
The views expressed in this article are his own.
N³ Thinking Ahead! Dr. Friege & Partners