Since 1990, the nonprofit organization Bioneers has been uplifting the voices of movement leaders throughout the world. These innovators have changed the world in diverse realms, from women’s leadership and indigenous rights to nature conservation and health justice. As a leading voice in Green Chemistry, Beyond Benign’s John Warner has spoken at Bioneers’ annual conference in the past, and he’ll keynote at Bioneers’ 2023 Conference in April.
Bioneers is eager to share innovative environmental education concepts with its forward-thinking audience. Recently, Beyond Benign Co-Founder Dr. Amy Cannon met with Bioneers to discuss the organization’s progress and plans for the coming years.
Bioneers: Tell us a little bit about the beginnings of Beyond Benign.
Amy: Beyond Benign was founded in 2007 at a time when green chemistry was not widely accepted in chemistry education and research. It was an exception, rather than the rule. Having spent time in both industry and academia, my co-founder, John Warner, and I had a unique perspective on the state of the chemical enterprise. We saw an opportunity to address a clear gap in how educational institutions teach and train chemists: arming them with the knowledge and skills needed to address hazards and environmental impacts through the practice of their trade.
The field of chemistry has a history of contributing to environmental impacts and human hazards. But it also has a central role in addressing these impacts through how we use and approach the design and implementation of chemicals and chemical products. This duality can be confusing but also empowering for chemists.
As a fundamental science, chemistry has tremendous power to address sustainability at the molecular level. This is something that needs to be included in the teaching and training of chemistry, which is why it’s the main focus of Beyond Benign: empowering educators to bring green chemistry into their teaching and practice to better train chemists with green chemistry skills.
Bioneers: Have you seen chemistry education morph throughout the past 10 years?
Amy: Yes, there has been a growing awareness of green chemistry and an expansion in the implementation of green chemistry in chemistry education. Although we would have liked to have seen more progress in the past 10 years, green chemistry is generally much more accepted by the academic community. For example, of the higher ed institutions that are involved with our Green Chemistry Commitment program, more than 75% have enacted significant changes at their institutions.
While I do think we have had a part to play in the changes over the years, I think that one of the biggest motivators is seeing the results of green chemistry in practice. When chemists can see real results from implementing greener chemistry in the design and use of chemical products, they can see the tremendous power of chemistry to address sustainability challenges.
Bioneers: Beyond Benign is challenging educators and educational institutions to change and grow. How has that challenge been received?
Amy: Generally, educators are up for the challenge and see the value of bringing green chemistry into their teaching and practice. The pushback has mostly been from the barriers that come from enacting any type of curricular changes. When educators look to make changes to their curriculum, they are faced with resource constraints, and they also might see some resistance from peers or administrators, usually arising from misconceptions about green chemistry. Once educators and administrators see the benefits of including green chemistry in their teaching and practice – hazard reductions, cost savings, increased student interest – they then seek to do even more.
At Beyond Benign, we work to help educators overcome the real and perceived obstacles that go hand-in-hand with curricular changes. We provide resources, funding, and peer support that empowers educators to incorporate green chemistry in a way that works for their courses and institutions.
Bioneers: Why is working with chemical industry leaders such an important part of what Beyond Benign does?
Amy: The goal of green chemistry is to become the way that chemistry is practiced. Therefore, the chemical industry needs to have a key role in implementing and inventing greener processes and products and also advocating for and hiring a workforce that has the skills to implement these practices. The chemical industry creates the molecular building blocks of our global society. When green chemistry is implemented in the manufacturing and design of chemical products, the impacts are tremendous. For example, in an industrial setting, one chemical industry saw a 97% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions after switching to a biobased solvent in one of its manufacturing processes.
However, it isn’t only chemical companies that can address sustainability goals by utilizing green chemistry. Companies across sectors are seeing the advantages of utilizing green chemistry for safer, healthier products. We’ve seen job postings from companies including Apple, Microsoft, Lululemon, and Pfizer, all looking for scientists with green chemistry knowledge and skills.
Bioneers: Which projects or initiatives are you most excited about looking ahead to the next few years?
Amy: Over the past few years, we have been working on expanding our reach to foster a global, diverse community of green chemistry educators and leaders. To support this community, we have embarked on creating a web-based platform that will house community green chemistry education resources, and also include interactive components that support networking, mentoring, and peer-to-peer interactions. The Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community (GCTLC) is anticipated to launch in August of this year, and we are really looking forward to launching the platform in partnership with the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute. We are hopeful that this platform will further catalyze the implementation of green chemistry globally.
Bioneers: What gives you hope in the work you’re doing?
Amy: I have met numerous students over the years who have brought such passion into their work. Many of them have also led initiatives to bring green chemistry to their departments and their communities. One example is the University of Toronto’s student-led group called the Green Chemistry Initiative. Over the years, they have built awareness within their own department and also served as inspiration for other institutions and student groups to get involved with green chemistry. It is these current and future leaders that will bring change to the chemical enterprise. Students are tremendously powerful change agents.
A version of this article was originally posted on the Bioneers website.