The theme of this month’s Nexus Newsletter is metrics. But what are metrics? And why did we choose to dedicate an entire issue to them? Broadly speaking, metrics are systems of measurement used to track and evaluate performance. They are helpful for comparing outcomes with benchmarks you establish, and measuring your progress toward your goals and objectives. You might monitor your expenses to see if you’re living within your budget, log your workouts to observe improvement, or count the number of hours you sleep per night to avoid a deficit. You design and use metrics for important goals in your personal life, so why not use them to advance your chemistry?
Here at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute® we believe that understanding and embracing metrics are the very first steps to greener chemistry and engineering. We also believe that it’s not enough to just know the metrics; one must integrate them into one’s studies or work. Since evaluating chemistry is not as easy as starting your stopwatch before a run, the other articles in this month’s issue are overviews of various metrics and tools that can provide a deeper understanding of your chemistry and improve best practices. There are many ways to use such metrics to “green” your chemistry, whether by gaining insight into the potential environmental and health impacts of your products and processes (hazard*, risk*, and life cycle assessments), how to use resources and energy more efficiently in your chemistry (process mass intensity), or how to select greener inputs (alternatives assessments, and solvent and reagent guides).
It’s important to remember that no single metric can optimize the impact of your science. Chemistry and engineering are so integral to modern life that individual choices often affect multiple objectives, so you may face trade-offs between goals. For example, you can assess both the hazard of a chemical and the risk of exposure (occupational and beyond), but you will not fully understand safety if you consider one without the other. So it’s also important to remember what you’re working toward with your chemistry, and always keep that goal in mind.
Metrics offer a new way of seeing and thinking for problem solving, and when used well can provide you the information needed to make major decisions. For greener chemistry and engineering, these decisions could range from determining how to minimize the use of petroleum derived products or how to reduce water consumption. The trade-offs arise when you then have to decide which outcome is a higher priority and which is more feasible.
Chemistry, and thus life, will always demand resources, have some level of hazard, and create waste. Metrics and green chemistry are becoming more holistic and increasingly contextualizing our science within the broader concerns of society. They are the first steps to realizing that everyone’s science, from the most fundamental to the widely applied, has an impact. And everyone, from bench to big picture, makes important decisions every day that can promote a more sustainable future.
*Check out our November issue for the first installment in a series on hazard and risk.
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