By David Constable, Ph.D., Scientific Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute
Say you’re in the market for a new article of clothing and you start searching on the internet for what’s available from retailers you have bought from in the past. Maybe you want something that is classically stylish, maybe you don’t want it to go out of fashion quickly and want it to last more than one season, you think it will make you look great, the colors compliment you, and you think it will feel comfortable when you’re wearing it. You decide to go ahead and purchase it. If you’re like most people, you don’t give much thought about where the clothing originated from, who put it together, or how the cloth was made. Again, if you’re like most people, you don’t think about what you’re going to do with the clothing after you’ve worn it for a while and decide that perhaps it is no longer suitable for you to continue wearing it, although you may have a history of donating your clothing to charity. For the most part, we consume things somewhat mindlessly, especially in modern western societies.
SDG 12, if we think about it for any length of time, forces us to think differently about consumption. Exactly what is sustainable consumption and what does production that supports sustainable consumption look like? The box below contains a few of the goal’s targets that are most applicable to chemistry and chemical production, and these give us some ideas about what might be required.
SDG 12: Selected Targets
Hopefully, you see a few ideas that are familiar to you, like resource efficiency, reduced food waste, chemicals management and reduced emissions associated with chemicals throughout their life cycle, elements of the circular economy, increased recycling and reuse, etc. It’s interesting to me that for the most part, the burden for sustainable consumption in these targets lies with companies, not with the ultimate consumer. But is this the only place that responsibility for sustainable consumption resides? Ultimately, producers and manufacturers are responding to a demand signal from consumers for things they can sell. They certainly have an enormous responsibility to produce things in an environmentally responsible fashion thanks to 40 years or more of environmental legislation. Can the same be said about sustainability? That is, are companies operating in as sustainable a fashion as possible? Despite steps in the right direction, the global chemistry enterprise is operating a great distance away from what would be considered sustainable. Many of the materials (the mass) that move through our economies, and the energy that is used to supply, maintain, use and dispose of these materials, are overwhelmingly produced from non-renewable and unsustainable resources.
So what might more sustainable consumption and production look like?
- The way in which energy is being produced and distributed is certainly undergoing a transition to greater amounts of solar, wind and other renewable forms of energy, and the potential for more distributed generation is increasing. This transition is shifting impacts from CO2 production related to energy generation, to a range of impacts beyond CO2 production, and renewable energy is far from sustainable when looked at from a resource depletion or environmental impact perspective.
- Transportation is being disrupted toward electricity and electric vehicles, which possess many challenges for sustainable consumption related to batteries, rare earth elements, precious metals, advanced materials, coatings, etc. Transportation is also being disrupted to shared models and automation, which changes the existing models of consumption, ownership, and end-of-useful-life issues.
- Chemicals production could also become increasingly characterized by precision fermentation and be much more distributed to make use of local biomass sources.
- Extensive automation and robotics will also profoundly change the need for new materials but also the nature of work in society. Increased smart technology, while enabling greater energy efficiency, will require greater use of a range of elements that are not currently being sustainably extracted, processed, and re-used. Robotics and additive manufacturing may enable more production to be distributed differently, but this will require greater use of materials.
- A more biobased and circular economy will also require extensive innovation in food and biomass production, which has profound implications on energy, nitrogen, and phosphorous consumption.
Implicit in all these transitions is the need to employ greener and more sustainable chemistry and chemical technologies. The history of technology development has been, however, rarely focused on sustainable development and clearly, this needs to change if we have any hope of moving towards more sustainable consumption and production. Chemistry remains a central driving force in most areas of sustainable development and green and sustainable chemistry should be the way in which the world does its chemistry.