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Chemistry Visionaries: A Leadership Conversation on the Future of Green & Sustainable Chemistry

ACSGCI
Honored Contributor
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Visionary leaders Jenny MacKellar from Change Chemistry, Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal from ACS GCI, and Amy Cannon from Beyond Benign discuss the remarkable progress, challenges, and strategic initiatives undertaken in the past year, and where they see green and sustainable chemistry progressing in the years ahead.

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In the ever-evolving landscape of green and sustainable chemistry, three distinguished organizations — the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (ACS GCI), Beyond Benign, and Change Chemistry — are working collectively to steer the industry toward a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future. In the following conversation, visionary leaders from each of these organizations — Jenny MacKellar from Change Chemistry, Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal from ACS GCI, and Amy Cannon from Beyond Benign — discuss the remarkable progress, challenges, and strategic initiatives undertaken in the past year, and where they see green and sustainable chemistry progressing in the years ahead.

Jenny MacKellar, Change Chemistry: Change Chemistry is a coalition of 100+ industry leaders committed to driving the adoption of safer and sustainable chemistries globally. Jenny MacKellar is the coordinator of Change Chemistry’s diverse member offerings, overseeing programs, workgroups, and events. With a background in systems biology and public health, she previously spent nine years at the ACS GCI and has experience in U.S. government agencies, emphasizing science communication, policy, grant management, and IT solutions. 

Adelina Voutchkova-Kostal, ACS GCI: The ACS's flagship Green Chemistry Institute convenes the global chemistry community to catalyze innovative thinking, facilitate critical conversations, and communicate the core values and benefits of green and sustainable chemistry and engineering. Adelina Voutchkova, Director of Sustainable Development at the ACS, leads the ACS GCI and has extensive research experience in green synthetic methods and predictive toxicology. 

Amy Cannon, Beyond Benign: Beyond Benign empowers educators to bring green chemistry to their teaching and practice. Amy Cannon, the recipient of the world's first Ph.D. in Green Chemistry, is a pioneering force in advancing sustainability within the field. From co-founding Beyond Benign in 2007 to earning accolades for research and leadership, Amy remains dedicated to transforming education systems to equip scientists with essential green chemistry skills for sustainable chemical solutions.

Join us in this enlightening dialogue as these three leaders discuss their organizations' unique contributions, collaborative endeavors, and their collective journey toward a sustainable and inclusive future.

Each of your organizations works uniquely in the chemistry space to promote green and sustainable chemistry at institutional and industrial levels. Could you share some highlights from the past year that indicate progress in this direction?

Jenny: 

From our perspective, two notable trends stand out. Firstly, there is unprecedented policy support through significant legislation like the Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Sustainable Chemistry R&D Act. These laws not only allocate substantial funding for green and sustainable chemistry innovations but also emphasize environmental justice, encouraging holistic problem-solving.

Secondly, we are seeing the finance community prioritizing green and sustainable chemistry. Companies now face reputational risks if they do not prioritize green and sustainable chemistry practices as part of their business strategies. This shift in perspective is pressuring even major chemical companies to align with and prioritize sustainable chemistry practices. 

Adelina: 

In the industry sector, there's a notable increase in interest and engagement in pre-competitive collaboration facilitated by the ACS GCI. Industry groups collaborate through roundtables to overcome research and development challenges that lead to a reduction of the environmental and health impact of their operations. 

On the education front, educators are showing a growing appetite for a green chemistry curriculum. On the science and innovation side, ACS journals that serve green chemistry and engineering are growing in prominence. Initiatives such as the Green Chemistry Challenge awards further highlight the collaborative efforts in pushing the green chemistry agenda.

Amy: 

The past year has been super exciting, marking a broader recognition of green chemistry as a means to achieve sustainability goals. In the education sector, the rate of new signatories to the Green Chemistry Commitment nearly tripled, indicating significant acceptance and growth. And, we also launched a new community platform to support the global green chemistry education community, the Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community (GCTLC). 

The updated ACS guidelines for bachelor’s degree programs now consider green chemistry a critical requirement and a normal expectation, emphasizing its importance in the curriculum. While it may not be the norm yet, there is a clear expectation that green chemistry should be integrated meaningfully into higher education curriculum. Industry is also recognizing the benefits of green chemistry skills in the workplace, adding to the overall positive momentum.

What are some of the barriers your communities are facing as they work to make green and sustainable chemistry more widely adopted?

Amy: 

I usually don't talk about barriers because I find it limiting; I see them more as opportunities. However, within the education sector, the challenges of integrating green chemistry are not unique to this field but rather stem from the broader difficulties of changing established curricula. Adapting teaching practices and altering routines ingrained for years is a universal challenge requiring time, resources, community support, and financial investment. It's crucial to view these obstacles not as hindrances specific to green chemistry but as opportunities to understand the complexities of implementing change. While some barriers, like misconceptions about green chemistry, may be unique, their prevalence is decreasing with the growing body of evidence showcasing the benefits of sustainable practices.

Adelina: 

I echo Amy's perspective on viewing challenges as opportunities. The current heightened public awareness of sustainability provides a timely opportunity. Leveraging this awareness, we can emphasize the role of chemists in bridging innovation gaps to minimize environmental impact. This presents a chance to inspire students, researchers, and companies about their respective  roles in contributing to sustainable development. The ACS GCI plays a unique role in communicating these actions, using its platform to highlight chemists as agents of positive change.

One approach for that is leveraging the ACS's broad reach to inspire chemists about the broader application of their research. The GCI looks to showcase not only fundamental research but also its real-world applications in solving sustainability challenges. In the long term, we plan to engage the global community with campaigns that communicate the vital role of chemistry in addressing sustainability challenges. 

Jenny:

I agree with Adelina and Amy. One significant concern is the lack of consistency around metrics for measuring sustainable chemistry attributes. There has been significant work over the years to determine how we measure progress towards safer chemicals, but we have a long way to go in creating similar metrics for sustainable chemicals. Clear metrics aid communication between customers and suppliers during the production of products, but also with the public and investors, and support educational transformations providing a comprehensive narrative of the community's objectives. Developing metrics for green and sustainable chemistry is a tough task, and efforts like the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable are working hard to establish clear standards, reflecting the broader industry trend toward reporting progress.

What do chemistry educators and students need from industry and policy leaders in order to prepare the next generation of green and sustainable chemists more successfully?

Amy:

That's a great question. I believe we need stronger bridges to industry, with a clearer articulation of their needs. Industry should express the specific skills they require, allowing educators to better tailor training for the next generation. The ACS has provided leadership through guidelines emphasizing green chemistry, and it will be interesting to see if this momentum continues. Moreover, industry needs to align its actions with expressed needs by actively seeking and hiring individuals with green chemistry skills.

Jenny:

I love this conversation, and having worked with Amy and Adelina for so many years, education is obviously near and dear to my heart.

To enhance education, we are in the process of developing a survey to better understand the upskilling needs of our current workforce. This would help us bridge the gap between what industry needs and how we train future scientists. On the policy side, we're focused on ensuring that current funding opportunities support innovation and green and sustainable chemistry. We aim to harness these opportunities to align with the principles of green chemistry, ensuring that the policies in place translate into meaningful funding opportunities. Additionally, we're working on communicating the importance of green and sustainable chemistry to policymakers, emphasizing its connection to bipartisan topics like job creation.

Adelina:

The ACS GCI is evolving its engagement in policy, collaborating closely with the ACS Government Affairs Office. We aim to be strategic partners to organizations like Beyond Benign and Change Chemistry in elevating the agenda for sustainable chemistry. While the passage of  the Sustainable Chemistry Act was a significant milestone, many challenges remain. The GCI is working to communicate the need to position the chemical research and industrial enterprise to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This requires the identification of innovation gaps, recognizing supply chain demands of industry, and the policy that will be needed to encourage the adoption of new chemistries. Recognizing that our organizations are all parts of a larger ecosystem underscores that collaboration with such strategic partners is crucial for affecting the change we advocate for.

Jenny, at an industrial level, where are you seeing the biggest opportunities for advancement in green and sustainable chemistry right now?

Jenny:

There are so many opportunities, but we always focus on areas with the potential for the most significant impact. We are trying to understand which systematic levers need to be pulled to drive the transition and scale of safer and more sustainable chemicals in the market. It’s important to demonstrate how green and sustainable chemistry practices can help companies achieve their broader sustainability goals. For example, many of the aspirational goals laid out in the UN SDGs are urgent issues, especially for the next generation. Articulating how green and sustainable chemistry can play a supporting role in addressing grand global challenges is critical to making sure that these practices become core to setting business strategies. Policy changes, financial shifts, and altering consumer mindsets are all part of a comprehensive approach needed to drive the industry in a sustainable direction. Education and systemic changes are also crucial, considering the unparalleled support required for the transition to the next phase of the chemical industry.

Amy: 

I think it's an interesting time with significant opportunities aligning with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These goals, addressing environmental and social justice challenges, are grand challenges that either require chemistry innovation as a central part of the solution, or should be embedded in how we practice chemistry. While not specific to particular industries, these challenges are global and local, providing a broader perspective.

Adelina: 

I agree, the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a critical framework connecting green chemistry and engineering impacts globally. We're actively working to connect research to these goals, ensuring our work positively impacts lives, communities, and ecosystems. We recently collaborated with the Moore Foundation to identify underfunded areas in fundamental chemistry that have a high potential to impact UN SDGs. We hope to encourage funding in these important areas and help researchers make connections between the fundamental advances that stem from their work and potential applications, bridging the gap between fundamental research and practical applications. It's a long-term project, but an essential one.

Speaking of research, Adelina, the connection between chemists at academic and industrial levels seems crucial for the advancement of green and sustainable chemistry. Where are you seeing success in these connections, and where are there still opportunities for growth?

Adelina: 

We've found success in initiatives like the GCI Industry Roundtables, which provide financial support to researchers who seek to address industrially relevant challenges and foster ongoing collaboration. We have also introduced a new sustainability grant program, supported by the ACS Campaign for a Sustainable Future, which assists early-career and mid-career researchers in connecting their work to industrial applications. We are also developing more opportunities for mid-career researchers to engage with industry during the fundamental research phase. 

Looking ahead, our vision involves creating a broader industry-academia nexus, a theme that will shape many GCI initiatives over the next few years. Based on my own experience in academic research, I see this as an area of tremendous potential. There are opportunities for the ACS to serve a critical role in integrating these two communities and sparking long-term connections, as opposed to just short-term collaborations.

A new platform called Green Chemistry for Sustainability, developed in collaboration with the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and Beyond Benign, will play a key role in integrating sectors and facilitating connections.

Amy: 

The collaboration between academic and industrial professionals is crucial. One challenge we've recognized is the need for technical expertise in new content areas, which is vital for sustainability. Industry professionals often possess this expertise, making collaboration beneficial. We've been successful in pairing professionals with academics to build case studies and educational resources based on real-world industrial examples, providing contextual and holistic perspectives in education. This approach aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry, a significant area of opportunity that we're actively exploring to enhance relevance in education.

Jenny: 

I love the direction Amy is taking. We're exploring ways to make our numerous case studies more accessible for educational settings. Collaborating with academic institutions is a priority, and we're revisiting past Green Chemistry Challenge Award winners to assess their impact and provide valuable insights. Additionally, we're keen on working closely with tech transfer offices to identify and support green and sustainable chemistry technologies at earlier stages, helping startups navigate challenges and ensuring they receive the necessary support. It's an exciting opportunity to contribute to the growth of early-stage companies and address some of the significant challenges in the green and sustainable chemistry space.

Environmental justice is an important topic for each of your organizations. Can you tell me about your plans to foster the advancement of environmental justice in the next year or two?

Amy: 

In our interactions with academic institutions through the green chemistry program and community-building efforts, we're focused on integrating both internal Diversity, Equity, Belonging, and Respect (DEBR) policies and external plans into our programming. We aim for these efforts to be impactful and genuinely engaging for individuals and institutions. Our green campus recruitment program includes a Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) initiative, emphasizing the need for intentional representation in our growing green chemistry community. We have dedicated programs and funds to engage with MSIs.

Addressing environmental justice requires a holistic approach, understanding the impacts of our trade at multiple levels. This involves considering historical and current implications, recognizing the real impacts of our actions, and exploring ways to improve. Embracing a systems thinking perspective is crucial, moving beyond silos and acknowledging broader impacts. We aim to weave these considerations into curriculum development and program approaches, with specific, detailed plans for engaging with various institutions. Our focus is on meaningful engagement, support, and elevation, aiming for a direction where chemistry is beneficial to all and not exclusive. While these plans are broad, they represent the beginning of our initiatives at Beyond Benign, with many more opportunities to explore.

Adelina: 

We've recently elevated environmental justice to a strategic priority at GCI, forging collaborations with the US EPA, specifically the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. In this partnership, we delve into existing data from the EPA Toxic Registry Inventory to identify opportunities to implement green chemistry practices to curb pollution. 

We recognize the potential impact of local green chemistry solutions, even if they may not result in high-profile journal publications. To facilitate this, we are developing a platform to connect individuals across sectors, fostering mentorship for community efforts. This extends to chemists partnering with organizations for meaningful broader outreach—a crucial element in federally funded grants. We believe that ACS and green chemistry can play a pivotal role in identifying opportunities for researchers to make a positive impact on communities.

Our collaborative efforts extend to sessions at GC&E and ACS National Meetings. We're enthusiastic about this new portfolio at GCI, and looking forward to seeing the productivity it brings in the coming year.

Jenny:

It's really exciting to witness the growing prominence of environmental justice in the agendas of our organizations, garnering significant interest and support from various quarters, including the federal government. This represents an unprecedented moment.

Recognizing the distinct spheres of green chemistry and environmental justice, we are working to support the development of a framework that aims to help organizations identify areas where their green and sustainable chemistry practices align with addressing environmental justice issues across the lifecycle. This includes the creation of case studies featuring companies in various stages, illustrating success and areas for improvement.

Environmental justice remains a nuanced and sensitive topic, with companies navigating the early stages. The conversation seeks to spotlight restorative efforts, acknowledging past challenges and fostering a positive shift in the chemistry narrative. While there are still ongoing discussions and the community is in the early stages of understanding and supporting this endeavor, there's a noticeable increase in enthusiasm and openness compared to even five years ago.

Any final thoughts?

Amy:

In reflecting on our collective efforts, it's notable that these three US-based organizations share similar timelines. Our commitments to advancing the field of green and sustainable chemistry date back to the late '90s and early 2000s, and we've consistently strived to propel the industry forward through the work of each of our organizations.

Collaborating with both of your organizations is so rewarding, and the continuous exploration of ways to collaborate is beneficial for the entire global community. As just three organizations within this expansive network, the potential for collaboration is immense.

Being side by side with incredible women on this journey is inspiring. Although there's still a considerable distance to cover, the progress made collectively, not only by us but also by countless others in the community, is noteworthy. It's an exciting time, and there's a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead.