“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.”
On 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.