Chemists must consider environmental impacts of their work

In a commentary published in Nature Reviews Chemistry, Ph.D. student Hannah Flerlage and associate professor Chris Slootweg from the University of Amsterdam’s Van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences propose a broader perspective for modern chemists. They emphasize the need for chemists to consider the impact of their work beyond traditional boundaries of reactions and lab setups. To address pressing environmental challenges and achieve genuine sustainability, they advocate for chemistry to prioritize efficiency, safety, and circularity.

Flerlage and Slootweg characterize current chemistry practices as contributing to environmental issues by facilitating the flow of materials from extraction to pollution. The waste generated during chemical processes and the short lifespan of many products have led to adverse health effects and environmental crises.

While acknowledging the progress in developing sustainable synthetic methods that minimize hazardous substances and waste, Flerlage and Slootweg assert that chemistry has not yet reached its sustainability goals.

They urge chemists to shift their focus from pursuing “cool molecules” and fascinating chemistry to a more holistic understanding of chemistry’s role in today’s world. They use the example of perfluorocubane, designated “Molecule of the Year” in 2022, to highlight how a molecule’s structural features can lead to environmental persistence and bioaccumulation.

Flerlage and Slootweg emphasize the ethical responsibility of modern chemistry to prioritize environmental considerations from the outset. They express concern about the development of chemistry that contributes to chemical pollution and advocate against poorly designed compounds, particularly “forever chemicals” like per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances and brominated flame retardants.

Systems thinking

Chemistry extends beyond crafting new molecules; it’s about transforming matter responsibly. Flerlage and Slootweg stress the duty to create safe chemicals that optimize resource use and enhance sustainability.

This calls for a systems thinking approach, recognizing sustainability as a complex outcome and embracing a molecular understanding. Chemistry must not solely emphasize renewable resources and waste reduction. It must also assess the entire life cycle and broader environmental impact of novel chemicals.

Illustratively, they highlight bioPE, a bio-based polymer from bioethanol. While it curbs fossil resource use, it falls short in enhancing recyclability and biodegradability, contributing to plastic pollution.

More challenging, more rewarding

In their article, Flerlage and Slootweg advocate a triple emphasis on efficiency, safety, and circularity for both chemical processes (synthesis) and products (chemical structure). These principles align with the paradigms of green chemistry, safe and sustainable-by-design, and circular chemistry. To genuinely contribute to sustainability, chemistry must harmonize all three simultaneously.

While this approach may pose challenges, it promises substantial rewards, according to Flerlage and Slootweg. They stress the need to expand our perspective beyond lab settings, pondering how our molecules and materials interact with both industrial systems and nature. For chemistry to profoundly advance sustainability, it must wholeheartedly embrace circular design, life-cycle analysis, toxicology considerations, and thorough environmental and social impact assessments.

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