Defining Sustainable Chemistry

Written on: August 1, 2022 by Molly Blessing

When Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” he asked his audience to question what relevance a name has to the entity it describes. The importance of naming has been highlighted as markets across the globe develop new strategies to reduce the environmental and social impacts of products and define their approaches to sustainability. This recent interest has us asking: What truly defines sustainable chemistry? Does changing the name or definition of sustainable chemistry make a chemical any more or less “Green”?

Whether we call chemistry that is protective of human health and the environment “sustainable chemistry,” “Green chemistry” or something else entirely is certainly of less importance than promoting its widespread adoption. For example, during past negotiations to pass legislation in the U.S. that would develop a program to support this approach to chemistry, the name of the program was changed from “Green” to “sustainable” chemistry as part of a political decision to increase legislative backing, though the intent of what the program would support was the same.i Today, people often refer to “Green and sustainable” chemistry without distinguishing between them to account for different names preferred by different groups.

Increasingly, however, governments are using the name “sustainable chemistry” and there is value to defining what this means—although it shouldn’t be so rigid as to inhibit innovation or growth. Sustainable chemistry is not an object with set qualities. The way we define it sets the boundaries for what types of research and programs receive government funding and political support, how progress is measured, as well as coordination with other stakeholders.

Green chemistry has a well-established definition based on 12 principles of design.ii However, there is a growing feeling that “Green” and “sustainable” chemistry are not the same, despite the two terms often being interchanged. Some have raised concerns that the 12 principles are too narrow a definition for sustainable chemistry, that they focus predominantly on molecular design rather than systems and life cycle thinking, lack an interdisciplinary perspective or don’t include consideration of economic impacts.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), the European Union (EU), and the U.S., as well as a multitude of non-governmental stakeholders, have all explored or are currently exploring the question of how to define sustainable chemistry, including to what degree the 12 principles of Green chemistry should be incorporated. One of these non-governmental stakeholders is the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3), a business-to-business forum operating out of the University of Massachusetts Lowell that works to accelerate the development and commercialization of Green and sustainable chemistry solutions.

The OECD has settled on a broad, multi-part definition that focuses on improving “the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services;” explicitly encompasses design, manufacture and use; and includes both environmental and social benefits.iii
GC3 has developed a separate definition that acknowledges the need for trade-offs and explicitly encompasses development, demonstration and commercialization, along with design and use.

The EU has not come out with a formal definition, but the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainabilityiv provides some indications. Its strategy includes several key actions related to banning and/or limiting the use of hazardous chemicals. Also included is the development of criteria for chemicals to be considered safe and sustainable by design throughout their life cycle. It’s fair to say that hazard and life cycle impacts are important components of what constitutes a sustainable chemical for the EU. Interested stakeholders should keep an eye on the progress of developing and finalizing the “safe and sustainable by design” criteria.

The U.S. is under a statutory mandate to develop a definition of “sustainable chemistry” as part of the Sustainable Chemistry Research & Development Act, which was enacted through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) recently put out a Request for Information,v inviting interested stakeholders to weigh in on what the definition should be and on a variety of related topics, including overlap with Green chemistry, technologies and research areas that should be prioritized for Federal attention, and Federal policy changes that could promote sustainable chemistry. The Household & Commercial Products Association (HCPA) was one of many stakeholders that submitted comments; the comment period closed on June 3 and OSTP is now reviewing the comments received.

While “Green chemistry” and “sustainable chemistry” are similar, the use of “sustainable chemistry” is trending upwards and there is a growing belief that “Green” chemistry and “sustainable” chemistry are not the same. The OECD and GC3 have both developed definitions of sustainable chemistry that are indicative of how government and industry are thinking about the concept. The EU and the U.S. haven’t developed formal definitions as of yet but are in the process of doing so. It may not be Shakespeare, but it’s important for businesses to stay informed about how major regulatory regimes are defining sustainable chemistry. This understanding will drastically impact which chemistries and technologies can receive future financial or political support from the government and will influence regulation for those considered less sustainable.

To discuss further or get involved, contact me at SPRAY


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