First Task for Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2019: Define ‘Sustainable Chemistry’

By Gene Quinn
July 24, 2020

“The problem appears to be that sustainable chemistry and green chemistry are sometimes used interchangeably, but can and do mean very different things depending on the point of view of the person speaking and the person listening.”

Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act - Thursday, July 23, the United States Senate passed the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2019 as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA because it authorized name changes for military bases named after Confederate Generals. The NDAA passed by veto-proof margins in both the House (295-125) and Senate (86-14). The NDAA will now go to Conference, which is expected to take several weeks before it is voted on again in the House and Senate before going to the President’s desk.

According to a press release issued after passage in the Senate, the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act will support American manufacturing and American jobs while also protecting human health and the environment by helping to realize the full innovation and market potential of sustainable chemistry technologies. The Act was sponsored by U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and cosponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.).

“The chemical sector is an integral part of Delaware’s economy and I am proud to lead this legislation that supports chemistry innovation, helps create new companies and jobs, and promotes sustainable use of resources,” said Senator Coons. “By creating a cohesive national vision for sustainable chemistry research and development, improving training of chemists and other professionals, and building new partnerships with the private sector, the bipartisan Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act is an exciting opportunity to maintain our scientific leadership and ensure the sustainability of our chemical enterprise for years to come.”


But what exactly is sustainable chemistry? There is no definition for this critical term in the legislation, and it is one that, according to Chemical & Engineering News has many different definitions.

According to the text of the legislation, the Director of the Office of Science and Technical Policy will convene an interagency entity under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Counsel. That entity is required to, within two years from the date of enactment, create a roadmap for sustainable chemistry. The first item on the agenda is to consult with relevant stakeholders from industry, academia, the federal government, and international entities to develop a consensus definition for the term sustainable chemistry. The problem appears to be that sustainable chemistry and green chemistry are sometimes used interchangeably, but can and do mean very different things depending on the point of view of the person speaking and the person listening.

A February 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office found that “[s]takeholders lack agreement on how to define sustainable chemistry and how to measure or access the sustainability processes”, which “hinder the development and adoption of more sustainable chemistry technologies.” Nevertheless, common themes were found to exist in the GAO study, namely improving the efficiency of using natural resources; reducing or eliminating hazardous substances, protecting the environment using innovative chemical transformations, considering all life cycles stages, and minimizing the use of non-renewable resources.

The Work Ahead

In consultation with the business and scientific communities, the defense industry, governments on every level, and other interested organizations, the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act seeks to establish a working framework of attributes for characterizing and metrics for assessing sustainable chemistry, coordinating Federal R&D support, technology transfer and commercialization, and identify ways Federal agencies can incentivize development and use of sustainable chemistry processes and products. In addition, stakeholders will need to identify major scientific challenges and will need to be addressed.

To support this initiative, participating agencies will be expected to incorporate sustainable chemistry into existing research, development, technology transfer, commercialization, education and training programs the agency determines to be relevant. Participating agencies are instructed to specifically coordinate with Federal laboratories, use incentive prize competitions and challenges, and grant and loan guarantees to aid in the technology transfer and commercialization of sustainable chemicals.

There’s a Lot Riding on This Definition

A report will need to be submitted to Congress no later than three years after the Act is enacted providing a summary of federally funded, sustainable chemistry research, development, technology transfer and commercialization, among other things. The report will also need to provide an assessment of the current state of sustainable chemistry in the United Sates and analysis on the progress made toward the goals and priorities of the Act.

Obviously, the success of this initiative will depend entirely upon the definition stakeholders reach for the undefined term sustainable chemistry, and the scientific ingenuity of those in the public and private sector who will partner to overcome the scientific impediments to a more sustainable, greener future.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and President & CEO ofIPWatchdog, Inc.. Gene founded in 1999. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and Of Counsel to the law firm of Berenato & White, LLC. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

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Discuss this

There are currently 3 Comments comments. Join the discussion.

  1. Pro Say July 24, 2020 5:58 pm

    Yes; and maybe the honorable Senators and Congress folks can define “abstract” and “something more” while they’re at it.

    We won’t hold our breath.

  2. TFCFM July 27, 2020 10:14 am

    Surely, some serious thought ought to be employed in setting forth federal goals and definitions for “sustainable chemistry,” given how much (environment-wise and taxpayer-dollar-wise) is riding on the outcomes.

    Fortunately, this legislation does not represent the first time anyone is considering the issue. See, for example,

  3. C. Whewell August 13, 2020 11:09 am

    Its a result of non-chemists, discussing chemistry. The effect is the same as when non-lawyers try to give legal advice. The main issue I see is that it appears detrimental, when Legislators make quick decisions, themselves mostly not chemists or lawyers.

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