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Advancing Sustainable Chemistry Requires a Systems Approach to Research

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By Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal, Director, and Edmond Lam, Assistant Director, ACS Office of Sustainability

In August 2023, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) released a report entitled “Sustainable Chemistry Report: Framing the Federal Landscape”. This report provides a consensus definition of “sustainable chemistry”...

By Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal, Director, and Edmond Lam, Assistant Director, ACS Office of Sustainability


In August 2023, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) released a report entitled “Sustainable Chemistry Report: Framing the Federal Landscape”. The report, which was mandated by the 2021 “Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act” aimed to develop a comprehensive strategy for advancing sustainable chemistry.1 To that end, an interagency strategy team was convened to generate a consensus definition of “sustainable chemistry”, provide a snapshot of sustainable chemistry activities within the U.S. federal government, and attempt to identify critical gaps and activities that federal programs can coordinate to support sustainable chemistry in collaboration with the private sector. The report provides an initial roadmap to guide U.S. federal agencies into a second phase of discussion, which will address guideline implementation.


Definition of “Sustainable Chemistry”. The report defines sustainable chemistry as chemistry that:

  • produces compounds or materials from readily available and renewable building blocks, reagents, and catalysts,
  • uses a process optimized for efficiency, AND
  • employs renewable energy sources.”


As stated, “this includes the intentional design, manufacture, use and end-of-life management of chemicals, materials and products across the lifecycle that do not adversely impact human health and the environment, while promoting circularity, meeting societal needs, contributing to economic resilience and aspiring to perpetually use elements, compounds and materials without depletion of resources or accumulation of waste.”

As a comparison, just prior to the report, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, in partnership with Beyond Benign, convened an expert panel that proposed a less technical definition of sustainable chemistry as “the development and application of chemicals, chemical processes, and products that benefit current and future generations without harmful impacts to humans or ecosystems.”2 The accompanying criteria proposed by the group overlap well with criteria identified in the report, with the addition of “transparency”—the need to disclose health, safety, and environmental data, provide open access verification of sustainability claims and chain-of-custody information for chemical and materials. Transparency is critical for enabling quantitative assessments of environmental and health impact. The report also alludes to transparency through its emphasis on data sharing as a catalyst for sustainable innovation.

The need for rational design clearly permeates the definition, emphasizing that design is needed to provide product function, minimize human and environmental hazards, and address end-of-life circularity and management. The lifecycle impact should be considered from sourcing, synthesis or manufacturing, transportation, use, and end-of-life management. The design for circularity is a major challenge that will permeate the research frontiers at the polymer, material, and platform chemical levels. Addressing circularity requires re-designing both the Process and Product, which are mutually dependent. The report also highlights the importance of end-of-life management, which must be considered in concert with the chemical or engineering processes that enable circularity.


How does this compare to the established definition of “green chemistry” and how should we distinguish the use? At first glance, a comparison of the presented definition of sustainable chemistry to the established one of “Green Chemistry” (reduction or elimination of hazardous materials and waste generation over a product lifecycle) suggests the latter focuses more closely on “hazardous waste”.  However, the principles of green chemistry that more granularly define the term include energy and material use optimization, use of renewable resources, and circularity by nature in the form of biodegradation. The concept of “circular economy” emerged well after the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry.3 As such, engineered circularity is not explicitly called for in the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry. If we consider circular economy principles,4 it becomes more evident that the definition of sustainable chemistry is roughly equivalent to the combined principles of green chemistry and circular economy.


Applying a systems-thinking approach to research to contribute to sustainable chemistry. The report underscores that solutions to sustainability challenges require an appreciation of interconnected systems. The most exciting innovations are emerging at the intersection of fields, such as biology and chemistry, or computer science and chemistry. Meanwhile, in industry, global sustainability goals are reframing corporate strategies, increasing collaboration, transparency, and the willingness to invest in strategies to save energy, minimize material use, and reduce pollution and waste. Advocates are pushing for innovative approaches to chemical manufacturing that minimize impact trade-offs and deliver safer chemicals by design rather than identifying problematic chemicals years after their introduction onto the market.

While this is a high bar to meet for academic research, this “systems approach” is commonplace in industry, where the market success of the product is driven by economics, safety, and performance. The current definition of sustainable chemistry thus calls for scientists from across multiple disciplines to collaborate in developing new chemistry, chemicals, or materials. While working in broad, interdisciplinary teams may be a new paradigm for many academic researchers, it is imperative for progress in chemistry for sustainability. It is also important to note that this does not need to dilute the deep expertise needed to make fundamental advances in their field, but rather complement it with a systems approach that makes the latter advances more likely to meaningfully contribute to sustainability. Thus, we are poised with the question – how can academic researchers adapt and what support is needed to retain productivity in fundamental research while accelerating applications in sustainable chemistry?


  1. Interdisciplinary and inter-sector collaboration. While bilateral interdisciplinary collaborations, especially between chemists of different specializations, are common, the report asks to expand on multilateral collaborations that cross into social sciences. The latter are much less common, with some exceptions of collaborative research enterprises. Such efforts may start with initial collaborations between researchers in academia and industry. To that end, the ACS  Campaign for a Sustainable Future has recently instituted two new grants, one of which directly provides support for academic researchers to spend a sabbatical engaging in interdisciplinary research in an industrial group, national laboratory, or other institution in a different department. Another opportunity by NSF targets graduate students to work with researchers in industry.


  1. Professional training for faculty in sustainability and green chemistry. While we recognize that it is not realistic for faculty to obtain in-depth training in areas outside of their expertise, building sufficient awareness in areas that relate to sustainability is realistic and useful. Basic awareness would introduce the main ideas and vocabulary that allows for productive conversations with experts.


  1. Graduate course offerings in green chemistry and engineering. Qualitative surveys suggest that while we have significantly expanded opportunities for undergraduates to engage in courses related to green chemistry and sustainability, opportunities for graduate students in chemistry in the US have not expanded significantly in the past decade. This contrasts with trends we are observing in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, where graduate training in green and sustainable chemistry has taken root in more substantial ways in recent years. The number of graduate programs in green chemistry at the Master’s and Doctoral levels remains minuscule, despite high interest from students to expand their training in green chemistry and sustainability. The availability of graduate training opportunities, especially those that are affordable, will significantly expand the number of chemists trained in the systems thinking approach to research, discussed above, which is critical to making meaningful progress in sustainability.


  1. Undergraduate courses that apply systems thinking in foundational courses. While US institutions have substantially increased the number of undergraduate courses that incorporate green chemistry at the foundational level (especially general and organic chemistry lectures and labs), we have grown to appreciate the need to incorporate systems thinking approaches throughout the chemistry curriculum to train students in thinking broadly to solve challenges related to the sustainable development. Both program-level and course-level curricula that embed systems thinking into teaching are needed, with an emphasis on making connections between disciplines. These problem-solving skills will be fundamental and can be coupled with green chemistry case studies to emphasize the process and the potential impact that it can have on contributing to the invention of sustainable chemistries.


What does the report mean for the regular chemist? The report clearly notes that the US economy is a major factor in how far sustainable chemistry activities can proliferate. Implementation of technologies and products requires buy-in from all members of the value chain. Sustainable chemistry technologies need to be competitive with incumbent technologies, improve supply chain resiliency, and be receptive to end users (i.e., high performance to a certain price threshold).  A wide spectrum of different research areas are required, ranging from inorganic to organic, analytical, computational, and physical chemistry.  Sustainable chemistry is highly relevant to addressing the development of these technologies. The report presents several gaps in sustainable chemistry that will need to be addressed to meet the challenges of protecting the environment, people’s health, economy, and national security of the US.


What is next? Part two of the Sustainable Chemistry Report will be developed through and informed by the engagement of stakeholders, collaborators, and partners that range from researchers and citizen scientists to public health experts, industries, governments, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. The information generated will inform sustainable chemistry standards and metrics, decarbonization, circularity, the use of novel methods for assessing sustainable chemistry, fuel other innovative public health actions, and help the US realize its vision for clean drinking water, clean air, and safe food for all. 



(1) National Science and Technology Council. Sustainable Chemistry Report: Framing the Federal Landscape, August 2023. (accessed 2023-09-26).

(2) Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and Beyond Benign. Expert Committee on Sustainable Chemistry (ECOSChem). Definition and criteria for Sustainable Chemistry: Created by the Expert Committee on Sustainable Chemistry (ECOSChem), February 2023. (accessed 2023-09-26)

(3) Anastas, P. T.; Warner, J. C. Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice; Oxford University Press, 1998.

(4) Velenturf, A.; Purnell, P. Principles for a sustainable circular economy. Sustain. Prod. Consum. 2021, 27, 1437-1457.