Sustainable chemistry

Public concerns regarding environmental, health and safety issues of chemicals have resulted in growing interest for ‘green chemistry’. With a new, stricter EU chemicals policy in place (REACH), research into chemicals with less environmental impact is being instigated to take greater account of issues such as waste prevention, biodegradability and energy savings.

Interest in green chemistry began in the US with the 1990 Pollution Prevention Act. It initially referred to chemicals and production processes that reduce or eliminate the use of substances and waste hazardous to human health and the environment.

The concept was further defined during the 90s by Dr. Anastas (US Environmental Protection Agency) and chemistry professor John C. Warner (University of Massachusetts, Boston) when they came up with the 12 principles of green chemistry.

These include:

  • Waste prevention
  • safety (low toxicity, minimise accident);
  • using renewable raw materials or feedstock (source of starting material for a chemical reaction);
  • increasing energy efficiency;
  • using safer solvents and reaction conditions and;
  • designing bio-degradable chemicals so that they do not accumulate in the environment.

The concept has now been broadened to encompass the three bottom lines of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. This means that none of the bottom-line objectives of sustainable chemistry can take precedence over the other two.

With the new EU legislation on chemicals in place (REACH - see our related LinksDossier), greener and safer products are set to represent the single biggest part of the European industry's innovation capacity and become a major source of future business and revenue. 

To meet this challenge and maintain its global leadership, the European chemical industry (CEFIC) and the European biotech industry (EuropaBio) on 4 March 2005 launched SusChem, a technological platform for EU R&D on sustainable chemistry. The platform identified three key sectors which are considered vital for innovation-led growth in the chemical sector:

  • Industrial biotechnology (also known as 'white biotechnology'):  Using biological raw materials (glucose, vegetable oils, enzymes, etc.) to develop products such as pharmaceuticals, bio-colorants, solvents, bio-degradable plastics, vitamins, food additives, bio-pesticides and liquid biofuels for use in cars;
  • Materials technology: Developing new materials with better performance including processing and recyclability;
  • Reaction and process design: Working towards faster, cheaper and cleaner production processes for existing chemicals.

In addition, a horizontal group was set up to look into strategic approaches to eco-efficient innovation other than just cost reduction and environmental performance. This includes economic or financial barriers, regulation and societal acceptance of chemicals, including the promotion of alternatives to animal testing.

In August 2006, SusChem presented its implementation action plan, identifying eight themes of major importance for sustainable chemistry: bio-based economy; energy; health care; information and communication technologies; nanotechnology; sustainable quality of life; sustainable product and process design; and transport. To demonstrate the benefits of sustainable chemistry on daily life, the SusChem platform wants to work on three "visionary projects":

  • the Smart Energy Home;
  • the Integrated Biorefinery;
  • the F3 Factory (F for fast, flexible, future manufacturing).

During the 6th stakeholder workshop, SusChem agreed to engage in more communication activity directed at the wider public and NGOs, specifically regarding nanotechnology and climate change.

Concerns as to the safety of chemicals for human health and the environment have prompted industry to give more attention to the issue. A voluntary initiative, the Responsible Care Programme, was adopted by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) in the early 90s. The programme aims to improve the health, safety and environmental performance of the global chemical industry, and to communicate with stakeholders about products, production processes and achievements. Other initiatives have included research (Long-Range Research Initiative) and an international voluntary programme to assess hazard of chemicals produced in high volumes (High Production Volume Chemicals).

However, these efforts were deemed insufficient by EU policymakers. In its White Paper on REACH, the Commission highlighted weaknesses in the current system, including a lack of knowledge about the dangers of chemicals, as the main reason for reforming EU chemicals policy. It proposed carrying out stricter and more systematic risk assessments, especially on the existing 30,000 substances for which information on risk is scarce or non-existent. The Commission's stated overriding goal in the proposed new chemicals regulation is sustainable development understood as a balance between environmental, economic and social priorities. 

EuropaBio - the association representing Europe's biotech industry - says so-called white biotechnologies provide industry with a cleaner alternative to traditional chemicals production processes. In a paper, it says white biotechs have enabled the development of new products - the properties, costs and environmental performance of which - could not have been achieved using petrochemicals feedstocks or conventional chemical production methods. In economic terms, EuropaBio points to case studies that it performed with the Öko-Institute in Germany which showed that white biotechs lead to costs reductions (in energy-efficiency, waste production and so on) that "will prove a positive boost to economic performance".

Environmental campaigners at Greenpeace are calling for safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals to be used whenever available as a way to drive green chemistry (substitution principle). However, they added that substitution is only happening slowly and in certain sectors not at all, because of barriers to introduction. Greenpeace therefore proposes imposing substitution as a mandatory principle under the draft EU chemicals legislation (REACH) whenever alternatives are available at a reasonable cost. It criticises the current version of the proposal for allowing the continued use of the most hazardous chemicals even when a safer alternative is available.

The WWF argues that REACH will encourage companies to innovate, thus stimulating competitiveness and growth. Moreover, it says that REACH will save millions of euro in the long run because of lower disease rates linked with chemical pollution.

  • 8 March 2007:  5th stakeholder meeting of SusChem.
  • 29-30 Jan 2008:  6th stakeholder meeting of SusChem.
  • Sept 2008:  Brokerage event for next FP7 call.
  • Jan 2009:  7th stakeholder meeting of SusChem.


Life Terra

Funded by the LIFE Programme of the EU

The content of this publication represents the views of the author only and is his/her sole responsibility. The Agency does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.

Subscribe to our newsletters