Why Is Green Chemistry Important?

Kate Onissiphorou

by Kate Onissiphorou

18th May 2022

Green chemistry is important because it aims to lower the carbon footprint and hazardous byproducts of industrial chemical processes, while still providing a cost-effective means of chemical manufacturing.

Green chemistry is both a specialised scientific field within chemistry/chemical engineering and a philosophy with specific core principles and goals. Also known as sustainable chemistry, it’s primarily concerned with reducing the hazardous byproducts of chemical processes on an industrial scale. 

Although related to environmental chemistry, green chemistry focuses more specifically on the environmental impact of chemistry and how to reduce it. Environmental chemistry, on the other hand, concentrates on the study of synthetic chemical pollutants in the environment.

What is the historical background of green chemistry?

You can trace the origin of green chemistry to the passing of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 in the United States. Although the term itself is not included in the law, some of its main goals and guiding principles are either implied or specified in the legal provisions. You could think of green chemistry as a response in support of the law.

Illustration of a person wearing a gas mask changing reality into clear and healthy future.

Instead of merely treating, recycling, and disposing waste products, green chemistry sought to reduce waste at the source. To do this, experts acknowledged that industrial chemical processes and manufacturing practices would need to be modified.

In 1991, the US Office of Pollution and Toxics and the National Science Foundation launched a joint programme to encourage researchers to redesign existing chemical processes and products to make them less harmful to the environment and human health. The initiative kickstarted a new field of chemistry research during the 1990s.

In 1999, the Royal Society of Chemistry launched the Green Chemistry scientific journal. It was a key development in green chemistry studies here in the UK, and provided academics with a medium through which they could share their findings with other scientists in the field.

What are the benefits of green chemistry?

The main benefits of green chemistry relate to the reduced impact of chemical products and industrial processes on the environment and human health. These benefits can also be gleaned from the 12 principles of green chemistry, which was written in 1998 by Paul Anastas and John C. Warner. 

The benefits of green chemistry can be divided into three categories based on the 12 principles – environmental, human, and business benefits. The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry

Source

Environmental benefits

  • Green chemistry reduces the hazardous chemical byproducts that are either intentionally (out of necessity or inevitability) or unintentionally released into the environment. For example, agricultural pesticides are intentionally sprayed onto large areas of farmland. However, they can accidentally get into aquifers and pollute the drinking water. Tractor spraying pesticides onto a vegetable field
  • Green chemicals are biodegradable and non-harmful in the long term. Some can even be recovered and reused.
  • Chemicals are not biomagnified and do not become toxic in fauna and flora, meaning there’s no disruption to the ecological balance.
  • Ecological problems, like global warming and ozone depletion, are significantly reduced.
  • Sanitary landfills require less space because fewer toxic chemicals are produced.

Human benefits

  • Cleaner air means city dwellers have a lower risk of developing respiratory diseases.
  • Lower levels of chemical waste in water makes it safer for drinking and recreation. Water being poured into a glass
  • Safer workplace for those employed in the chemical industry as the chemical processes and products are less hazardous. This also reduces the need for personal protective equipment and lowers the risk of catastrophic accidents like fires and explosions.
  • Consumers are less likely to be exposed to hazardous products, especially when using chemically-based household items such as cleaning agents. Medicines and food products are also safer.
  • Lower risk of developing chronic diseases due to long-term exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Business benefits

  • More efficient production because of the atom economy principle. This means raw materials are converted efficiently into end products with zero or fewer waste byproducts.
  • A reduction in the steps in chemical production makes the entire process faster and more cost-effective. Less energy, water, and other resources are used as a result.
  • Less waste means lower expenditure on waste disposal and facility maintenance.
  • Increased efficiency and a lower carbon footprint may mean factories require less space and can downsize.

How does green chemistry help research and development?

The chemical industry and other manufacturing sectors benefit from green chemistry in many ways. It makes more business sense to invest in green chemistry as cheaper and less harmful products are produced.

But it’s not only a matter of cost-effectiveness and increased profits. The practice of green chemistry also adds value, with consumers able to use and enjoy products without being exposed to hazardous chemicals.

As a tool for sustainable development, green chemistry is significantly lowering the cost of production and reducing the need for fossil fuels. As a result, alternative sources of renewable energy are now being developed.

A vanguard in technology innovation, green chemistry is having a positive impact on various aspects of civilisation, from energy production to consumer goods manufacturing.

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