Is Green Chemistry Sustainable in South Africa?

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By Dr. Vincent Nyamori and Dr. Werner Van Zyl, June 2012

Green chemistry is a philosophy that aims to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of waste and to maximise the efficiency of chemical products and processes. As such, green chemistry can be applied to sustainable topics such as energy, agriculture, water purification, and many others. In South Africa, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) plays a key role on in deciding science policy.

In 2007, the DST launched the Ten-year Innovation Plan (TYIP), which incorporated the five Grand Challenges. This plan greatly implicates and overlaps with Green Chemistry.  One of the main TYIP challenges was the issue of “Enhancing the culture of innovation and using it to strengthen economic growth.” Practical mechanisms were being put into place by government to achieve this. This included creation of The Centres of Competence (CoC) and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).  The CoCs would bring together existing capacities in the national system of innovation (NSI) from industry, government and science councils into a special purpose vehicle that works towards a common objective. The field of green chemistry was one such potential area in which a CoC, could be established.

Other associations of the Ten-Year Innovation Plan (TYIP) for a green chemistry programme were the renewed emphasis on human capital development (HCD), in which the DST was already investing through the Research Chairs programme, centres of excellence and bursaries.  The TYIP had stressed the importance of international partnerships. The DST is in a position to engage with international partners which could enhance cooperation.

At governmental level, the Minister of Economic Development highlighted the need to define a new growth path.  In this context, the concepts of a knowledge-based economy and a green economy were important. Practical steps would have to be developed to take forward a knowledge-based green economy, and it is hoped that planned workshops would contribute to the development of the DST Green Economy Strategy.

South Africa needs to enhance its capabilities and grow the area of green chemistry; given the present fiscal constraints on the public purse, this would require a strong business case.  Partnerships would be required right from the planning phase and could then be used to attract resources.  An important first stage would be the consolidation of existing efforts.  It is easier for the DST to fund initiatives where there is strong buy-in from universities, science councils and industry.  The DST acknowledged that the model to be used in many areas would entail an initially important role for government funding, which would decline over time as industry increasingly took the initiative.  However, industry participation would be important from the outset in supporting the value proposition, for example, by making their laboratories or human resources available.  The DST had already successfully implemented measures of this nature in a range of areas, guided by the centres of competence, which establish consortia with a unified voice.  The DST not only tries to find new resources but may also modify existing instruments.

A 2010 workshop hosted by DST, revealed that for Green Chemistry to be successful and sustainable in South Africa, the following steps would be important:

  • An audit should be conducted to establish the status of green chemistry capacity, teaching and research in South Africa. It was suggested that the audit should include an investigation of the global green chemistry initiatives of multinationals that operate in South Africa; CAIA could assist in this regard, as most such multinationals are members.
  • A green chemistry network should be formed among the green chemistry community to establish commonalities. Green chemistry in other countries is often driven by chemical societies, whether the South African Chemical Institute (SACI) can drive the research agenda in green chemistry in South Africa is debatable and needs to be addressed.
  • Education initiatives are needed at three levels: (1) public awareness and teaching at schools, by incorporating green issues into the Life Orientation curriculum and using existing platforms such as the science fairs and the DST Science Week; (2) disseminating information on existing university courses; and (3) engagement with industry through short courses targeting different industries to demonstrate green approaches that could reduce their risk management. A key question would be whether South Africa has the expertise to drive specific courses. There was a general feeling that South Africa is not yet ready to award degrees in green chemistry due to the lack of a critical teaching mass. It would be up to individual universities that consider that they are ready to offer a green chemistry degree to take the initiative and have the programme accredited. It was further noted that most departments of chemistry in the country are only viable by virtue of offering service courses, and that it might be even more difficult to make green chemistry degree courses viable.
  • Research on two levels: (1) applied research to assist industry to reduce waste and lower the carbon footprint in existing processes, and (2) coordination of activities in green chemistry into a flagship project in order to convince government and industry that the effort could succeed and to secure investment. Such research might be of a fundamental nature aimed at addressing South Africa problems on issues around energy and water.
  • Incentives for green chemistry should be offered in the form of awards. Another form of award would be to provide ring-fenced funding to allow students to attend green chemistry conferences of the PANC, RSC or others.
  • Links should be formed with the Department of Environmental Affairs as an important stakeholder of the green chemistry initiative.

In conclusion, Green Chemistry could be sustainable in South Africa.  Green Chemistry, unlike Environmental chemistry has the issue of cost attached. By implication it is economically driven and hence sometimes it is referred to as Sustainable Chemistry.  Sustainability or sustainable development requires the reconciliation of environmental, social and economic demands - the "three pillars" of sustainability.

Dr. V.O. Nyamori, SACI: Green Division Chair (pictured left)

Dr. W.E. van Zyl, SACI: Green Division Secretary (pictured right)

South African Chemical Institute

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