April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day reminds us of our obligation to care for our fragile planet. Signs of humanity’s negative impact on the environment were evident when the first Earth Day was observed in 1970: The Cuyahoga River caught fire multiple times, bird populations were threatened due to the use of DDT, and more than 100 people, most of them children, were killed when a coal mine waste pile collapsed in Aberfan, Wales.
These environmental disasters were a wake-up call: We could not continue to make and dispose of chemicals by simply discarding them in the environment. We needed to understand the fate of chemicals in the environment and their impact on organisms. Dilution was not the solution to pollution.
Many environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, were enacted in order to clean up the environment. These efforts resulted in cleaner bodies of water and less polluted skies. The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 introduced a new paradigm, one that focused on preventing pollution rather than cleaning it up at the end. Green chemistry and engineering grew out of this new mindset, recognizing that the choices made by chemists and chemical engineers at the start determine the overall impact of the process and product.
As you plan your Earth Day celebrations with your ChemClub, student chapter, local section, international chapter, or technical division, I encourage you to think about ways to incorporate green chemistry and engineering into your messaging and activities. When you share your love of chemistry with the public, point out greener approaches, such as the use of renewable starting materials and benign solvents, which chemists are implementing to prevent pollution.
Green chemistry and engineering are powerful approaches to protecting our planet from the unintended consequences of the practice of chemistry. Let’s leave the Earth in better shape for the 100th anniversary of Earth Day in 2070!