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My Introduction to Green Chemistry and How You Can Get Involved

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My name is William Frost, and I am a rising senior at Bucknell University pursuing degrees in both chemistry and economics. Throughout two years of high school chemistry and an intensive three years of college chemistry, the word green has never really come up. The science is so process-and-product-driven that it becomes easy for students and professors alike to think about nothing else. The most the subjects of sustainability or environmental justice have come up in my classes is through the discussion of material costs or the question of whether or not “I can throw this stuff down the drain.” Otherwise, it has always acted as a nuisance to process-planning or a barrier to a quick cleanup.

It was not until I applied to an internship with the Green Chemistry Institute at the American Chemical Society that it was brought to my attention. I did some initial, bare-bones research and came to the conclusion that it was essentially sustainable chemistry. I have always understood that sustainability is one of the more pressing issues of my generation, so I thought it could be a really cool experience and applied.  After successfully obtaining the internship, I was thrown straight to work, and I started during the most exciting time of the year.

That week, we prepared for the annual Green Chemistry and Engineering (GC&E) Conference which was to make its 21st appearance. I had the opportunity to participate in the conference as a staff member, which included helping the team in any way I could, but attending many of the sessions and networking events during my free time. It was a phenomenal atmosphere: 507 students, teachers, industrialists and pharmaceutical scientists attended the three-day conference.

I learned that green chemistry is about so much more than chemistry’s place in sustainability. There is no one single definition you can put on the subject because it permeates all aspects of chemistry. Every sub-sector of the science can incorporate green chemistry in some way, as it is the implementation of sustainable, green practices to better the daily life of those currently living and to leave a thriving world for the generations to come.

The conference was an incredible place to be. There was not a single person I met –and I was able to meet a lot of people – who was not extremely driven in implementing these green practices in their work. As a student at the event, it was encouraging to see the collaborative efforts of everyone at the conference, whether it be in discussing the ways that people could provide information to help a study or simply introducing someone to new ideas.

I attended sessions that included very technical green organic chemistry research projects, social and environmental justice discussions, circular economy innovations, and much more. Every session had an interesting topic and engaging speakers, making the most complicated of topics understandable for someone as naive as I was going into the conference.

Networking sessions were incorporated into every day. I found myself meeting people at meals, poster sessions and a pub crawl. There were professional as well as casual settings in which to get to know many of the people deeply involved in the advancement of green chemistry and those who “wore similar shoes” to my own.

It is a conference I plan on attending again next year as I have now learned the importance of its implementation in chemistry around the world. Chemists have always been well-intentioned, but the side effects of what we do can no longer be ignored. They are evident in the chemical crises you hear about around dump sites as well as the increasing temperatures inducing global warming.

One of the more staggering facts I learned was that some 90 percent of chemical feedstocks come from petroleum sources. That’s 90 percent of the chemical derivatives that chemists use coming straight out of the ground from a non-renewable source. These are the issues we must address: Can we find ways to prevent the waste from ever-generating, find an efficient way to use bio renewable feedstocks, and develop safer chemicals in the first place?

It is essential that people, scientists and all others learn about the green ways we can do chemistry. It is not all toxic and hazardous as many people think. Chemicals are not a bad thing as many ‘chemical-free’ products will tell you. ‘Chemical-free’ simply cannot exist as chemicals are the foundation of everything we are and everything we know. It must be understood that chemistry is where this problem began, but chemistry is exactly where we will see it end.

Find a way to make all of this a part of your life. It is time people became less scared of chemistry and got more involved in finding ways to solve these problems – which is no easy task as I quite fully learned during my three days at the GC&E Conference.

There are many ways to get involved and many levels on which to do so. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute® is the best place to start. It provides you with educational, informational and professional resources, but getting involved does not stop there. There are activist groups like Beyond Benign and NESSE who are working on finding the best ways to introduce people to these new ways of seeing chemistry. Start here to find the way all of this motivates you, and let that push you to help accomplish milestones great toward a great and necessary cause.

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