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Two Decades of Green Chemistry Progress, not only for the Environment but also for Education, through the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards

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Contributed by Michael Cann, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, The University of Scranton

Twenty years ago this July I was reading the abstracts for the fall 1996 ACS meeting in Orlando.  I came across two abstracts “The Green Chemistry Challenge” and “The 1996 Green Chemistry Challenge Award Program” both by Paul Anastas and Tracy Williamson of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As I read the abstracts I realized that this program could provide a great addition to the Environmental Chemistry course that I had to teach for the first time in the fall of 1996. I managed to track down Tracy and requested that she send me copies of the five winning proposals for the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge (PGCC) Awards as I wanted to incorporate them into this course. She thought that was a great idea.

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The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge began in 1996 and as of 2015 there are 104 awards.1 The awards are given in conjunction with the Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference (GC&E). Proposals are submitted to the U.S. EPA and are judged by a panel of experts convened by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute® (ACS GCI). The chemistry must fit into at least one of three focus areas: 1) greener synthetic pathways, 2) greener reaction conditions, and 3) the design of greener chemicals.  Generally 5 awards have been given each year: one in each of the focus areas, one to a small business and one to an academic. As of 2015 a new award is now given for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA1, the applied green chemistry described in these awards has had a dramatic effect on the environment.

“Through 2015, our 104 winning technologies have made billions of pounds of progress, including:

  • 826 million pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents eliminated each year—enough to fill almost 3,800 railroad tank cars or a train nearly 47 miles long.
  • 21 billion gallons of water saved each year—the amount used by 820,000 people annually.
  • 7.8 billion pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents released to air eliminated each year—equal to taking 810,000 automobiles off the road.”

The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge has not only had a large impact on the natural environment but also on education. For me, the PGCC winning awards provided a goldmine of material for infusion of green chemistry (GC) into the courses that I taught (the two semester organic sequence, graduate mechanistic and structural organic, environmental, general education chemistry, chemistry for the health sciences, readers in both undergraduate and graduate GC, and seminar). For my students, this opened up their minds to the world of sustainability and GC. Using real-world examples of GC illustrates how chemistry makes meaningful contributions to society without becoming a problem to the environment. Students invariably bring examples of GC/sustainability to class from the popular literature. Discussion of these examples often becomes the class discussion of the day. Whether they are science majors or not, students become much more engaged in discussions as they realize how chemistry impacts the world around them. It becomes apparent how chemistry is part of the solution to societal problems including the environment.

As educators we all take pride in the success stories of our students, and I am no exception. I had the pleasure of having Marc Connelly in my organic chemistry course in '97-'98, one of the first years that I incorporated GC into this course. Marc was a chemistry-business major, an excellent student, an excellent writer and very inclined to “think outside the box.” Marc and I wrote the first volume of Real-World Cases in Green Chemistry (based on 10 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award winners) in 1999. After graduation, I am proud to say, Marc went off to work in green chemistry at ACS. Eventually he left ACS to take an MBA and enter the world of finance.  More recently, I had the pleasure of working with Thomas Umile in many capacities during his student days at Scranton. If you read The Nexus on a regular basis you will remember Tom’s article from April 2016 describing his journey down the path of GC. In addition to working with Tom on the Real-World Cases in Green Chemistry Volume II3, Tom agreed to edit a book on catalysts for the book series Sustainability: Contributions through Science and Technology4. I will eagerly follow his progress as a faculty member at Gwynedd Mercy University. I know he will have a large positive impact on his students and the world of green chemistry. Others students have gone on to work and study with PGCC winners, and others have been hired in industry in part because of their exposure and knowledge of green chemistry.

In addition to teaching GC in the classroom I find that industries and the public are eager to hear how green chemistry can contribute to the cause of sustainability.

In order to thrive, companies realize that they must devise and execute a plan to infuse sustainability into their operations and communicate this plan to their internal and external stakeholders. My experience, having worked with industry, is that the PGCC award winning chemistries provide excellent examples to teach green chemistry to technical as well as non-technical personnel, and for industry to emulate. The wide range of chemistry found among the PGCC Award winners means that virtually any industry involved in chemistry can find examples of GC that are pertinent to their company.

We chemists not only need to be able to communicate with technical experts but also be ambassadors of chemistry to all. Although the public often has a negative view of chemistry, particularly the word “chemical,” I have found they are eager to see how chemistry can be part of the solution to environmental challenges, rather than as part of the problem. There are many examples from the PGCC Award winners that are immediately of relevance to Joe and Josephine Q. Public. They include topics such as recyclable carpeting, ibuprofen and other drugs, trans fats, dry cleaning, pesticides, paints, plastics and cleaning products. Chemists for too long have not paid enough attention to the environmental consequences of what we do, and our public image has paid a price –let’s change that!

The two decades of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards not only provide a plethora of information for bringing green chemistry into the classroom but also for giving public lectures, and examples for industries to study and emulate. Green Chemistry is chemistry that we can all live by and learn form.5

  1. The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge
  2. EPA: Information About the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge
  3. Real-World Cases in Green Chemistry Volume II
  4. Sustainability: Contributions through Science and Technology
  5. Abstracts of all the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award Winners

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