Chemicals can conjure images of doom and gloom. But Paul Anastas, a green chemist and professor at Yale University, is transforming chemistry’s image to one of health and sustainability.
“Chemistry is all about how you redesign the material basis of our society and our economy,” Anastas says. “Nobody has a greater impact on the materials of our daily lives.”
Experts have exceled in inventing new chemical processes, but Anastas worried that they were pumping out too much hazardous waste. In 1991, Anastas was working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and launched a research program to promote clean and green chemical processes. Green chemistry was born, and chemistry’s clean revolution began.
“I recognized that things didn’t make a lot of sense. We had way too much pollution, too many toxic substances,” Anastas says. “Green chemistry is about inventing new materials and new manufacturing processes that are conducive to life. […] It cuts across the entire lifecycle, from the origins of the feedstock all the way through a manufacturer and the use of the substance.”
The field burgeoned in the coming decades – even earning three chemists a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005. “I work with more than half of the Fortune 100 companies, and I can tell you that green chemistry is touching every sector,” Anastas says.
Green doesn’t just symbolize sustainability – it’s also the color of U.S. money. “This is how you align health and environmental goals with your profitability goals. Why? Because that's going to make it happen faster and at a scale that's necessary to address our problems,” he says.
Along with advising the private sector, Anastas brought his science expertise to the U.S. government. After 10 years at the EPA, he moved to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he worked for five years. He rejoined the EPA under the Obama administration to head research and development. During his time in government, he led the scientific response to the BP oil spill, the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima and 9/11. But he says his greatest contribution was launching green chemistry.
The future of green chemistry is all about awareness, and Anastas wastes no time building that future. For example, he advises Air Company, a business that specializes in converting CO2 into ethanol. The company recently developed the world’s first carbon-negative vodka. Anastas acknowledges that all the vodka in the world couldn’t address climate change, but that was never the point.
“The purpose was to capture people's imagination. And if they recognize that if you can turn CO2 into a luxury vodka, then it’s easy for them to understand how to convert it to sustainable aviation fuel and a wide range of other materials,” says Anastas.
“When people hear the word chemical, they think toxic, harmful, and scary rather than the things that are the solutions,” Anastas says. “The status quo is somewhere between absurdity or obscenity, and green chemistry is all about reinventing what tomorrow will look like.”