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Green Chemistry's Maven

Tracy Williamson : The Green Chemistry Program started at EPA after the Pollution Prevention Act was passed, in about 1991. The idea was to fund some basic research that could be used by industry to accomplish pollution prevention through chemistry. We were really charged with changing EPA's ethic to one of prevention rather than waste treatment. Our most visible activity is the Green Chemistry Challenge Awards program.

The Green Chemistry Program is entirely voluntary. The Pollution Prevention Act, of course, is a regulation, but it sets forth an ethic rather than regulatory action. We are taking a different approach by working through partnership?a non-regulatory, completely voluntary type of activity.

Green chemistry is a way of bringing back the perspective that chemicals aren't all bad. Of reminding citizens that chemistry is the very basis of the social and economic life of virtually all industrialized nations. Everything around us is a chemical. There are hazardous and toxic chemicals, but also a lot of chemical wonders. So we're trying, through green chemistry, to put chemistry in a very positive light: to show that it can actually be used to solve even our most pressing environmental issues, through the development of alternative technologies. Chemists have the knowledge to design chemical molecules and manufacturing processes that pose little risk to human health or the environment.

We're just starting to make public and lay information available. The American Chemical Society has started, through new editions of existing textbooks. There's a bigger need to develop supplemental materials that faculties can incorporate easily into their current coursework.

Peter Warshal l: Might some of the Challenge awards be kind of perverse incentives to produce a bad product by a less harmful method? Two award winners stand out: Roundup, because of the connection with genetically modified organisms, and CONFIRM, which is questioned by people in the organic food business.

TW: There are shades of "green." Certainly incremental improvements to one part of a process can be very important, rather than trying to change the entire picture. Making incremental improvements can really add up to significant benefits. At the same time, an entire technology can't be considered green if an improvement made one place results in a negative in another place.

The award actually wasn't for Roundup, it was for the synthetic steps that are used for an intermediate stage in making Roundup. It's a basic synthetic transformation that is used all over the chemical industry to make a whole host of products. There are a number of applications besides manufacture of Roundup where that transformation can be used, with very significant reduction in some very hazardous materials used.

PW: Monsanto has used it to promote Roundup as a green chemical.

TW: Some of these are huge issues [genetically modified organisms, organic agriculture]; in the meantime, do we keep using the problem processes to manufacture these controversial products? Or do we at least improve the processes with some very significant benefits to human health and the environment? Because that larger issue may never be solved. It certainly isn't going to be solved very quickly.

PW: We were wondering what happens if you find an environmentally better process that's not cheaper.

TW: We're finding that in most cases the greener technologies are not only comparable to the old processes from an economic point of view, but in a lot of cases they're preferable. A green process could save millions of dollars per year. That ties back to the costs associated with using hazardous substances; they keep going up. So if you're implementing greener technology, you're avoiding those costs.

PW: Looking throughout the chemical industry, what would you say is the biggest problem that you would like to see green chemists work on?

TW: Some existing barriers don't necessarily have to do with implementing greener technologies, but just with implementing new technologies, period. For example, most of the products in the flame retardant industry have been around for a long time. Certainly a lot of polymer-industry processes have been known since the thirties or forties. When you're using the same process over and over, the superiority of a new technology has to be really well demonstrated in order to break in. But again, what we're finding is that it doesn't have to do with greener technologies per se, but with the barriers to incorporating any new technologies.