February 27, 2022 – Lowell, MA
Toxic chemicals – which pop up in everything from household cleaners and appliances to medical devices, paints, packaging and more – are all around. The February 2023 Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio is just the latest illustration of the pressing need to develop safer chemicals for our use.
Uniform guidelines on how to create and advance the use of sustainable chemicals, however, do not yet exist.
Aiming to answer that need and improve human and environmental health, an international group of experts in the field, co-led by University of Massachusetts Lowell, has developed new criteria to define sustainable chemistry. The project, to be showcased during a webinar at 11 a.m. EST Wednesday, March 1, lays the groundwork for government, industry, academia and business leaders to enact and support effective policies guiding the manufacture, distribution and use of products derived from environmentally sound chemicals.
UMass Lowell public health Professor Joel Tickner, director of the university’s Sustainable Chemistry Catalyst group within the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, co-directed the project with Beyond Benign founder and Executive Director Amy Cannon. The committee’s work aims to support the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, tasked with developing a consensus definition of sustainable chemistry as a first step toward implementing the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act, part of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
“UMass Lowell and Beyond Benign leveraged the trusted relationships and broad networks built across academia, industry, government and the nonprofit communities during the past 20 years to establish a definition of sustainable chemistry and set transparent, measurable criteria that can affect bold change in policy – particularly with respect to research funding – and regulation, investment and business decisions,” Tickner said.
Known as the Expert Committee on Sustainable Chemistry (ECOSChem), the group of 20 scientists and other professionals, who met throughout 2022, crafted a consensus statement calling sustainable chemistry “the development and application of chemicals, chemical processes, and products that benefit current and future generations without harmful impacts to humans or ecosystems.”
The committee asserts sustainable chemistry is achieved when the development of chemicals, materials, processes, products and services successfully addresses five criteria:
- Equity and justice
- Health and safety impacts
- Climate and ecosystem impacts
- Circularity, or the ability to be recycled and reused.
The group’s robust definition for sustainable chemistry seeks to eliminate confusion and potentially regrettable trade-offs. For example, today, without a uniformly applied definition, a product may be called sustainable for its use of renewable energy or feedstocks but may be toxic to workers, consumers or communities. The group’s full report can be accessed here.
“The definition and criteria provide a roadmap for training the next generation of chemists, engineers and materials scientists to create products that benefit society, while minimizing impacts to current and future generations,” said Cannon, the first person in the world to be awarded a doctoral degree in green chemistry.
Members of the public may learn more about the committee, its process and the future of the project during the webinar “Defining Sustainable Chemistry.” Individuals registering to attend will be provided with credentials to join the online session.
Along with Tickner and Cannon, other members of the committee expected to participate include:
- Ryan Bouldin, associate professor of sustainable chemistry, Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S.
- Alexandra Caterbow, co-director, Health and Environmental Justice Support, Dachau, Bavaria, Germany
- Saskia van Bergen, safer chemist lead, Washington State Department of Ecology, Lacey, Washington, U.S.
- Cecilia Wandiga, executive director, Centre for Science and Technology Innovations, Nairobi, Kenya
- Martin Wolf, director of sustainability and authenticity, Seventh Generation, Burlington, Vermont, U.S.