Ken Geiser

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts-Lowell

The chemical industry arose in England and Germany during the 19th century as a means of synthetically manipulating natural materials into products that could be sold to customers. The industry was organized around a simple materials flow model that involved extracting minerals, biomass, or fossil fuels from the earth and processing them into useful substances that could be bought by customers interested in making products or services. The customers of the chemical industry went on to manufacture a broad array of valuable products that have been used and dispersed, or used and then disposed back into the environment. Either way, these chemicals have often been returned into the different media of the environment in ways that have compromised the balances of the ecological processes. The simple linear material flow model has inadequately accounted for environmental effects. The model assumes that the natural environment has an endless supply of raw materials for extraction and an unlimited capacity to assimilate wastes.

Such a material flow model and such a system of chemical manufacturing is not sustainable. The natural systems of the planet are not linear, one-pass systems. Instead, the planet's systems are remarkably sophisticated cyclical systems in which materials and energy constantly flow through repeating cycles. The homeo-static equilibrium of ecological processes is resilient up to a point, but the torrent of synthetic chemical products and wastes that have been produced by the chemical

Transforming Sustainability Strategy into Action: The Chemical Industry, Edited by B. Beloff, M. Lines, and D. Tanzil

Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

industry over the past 60 years now threatens the "natural services" of the planet (Daily, 1997).

The transition to a sustainable chemical industry requires a thorough reconcep-tualization of the industry and its products. Future generations will continue to need chemicals and the industrial transformation of chemicals, to meet human needs, will continue to require ingenuity and enterprise. However, the types of chemicals and how they are used must be significantly reconsidered. Fossil fuels will need to play a much smaller role, and wastes from production and consumption will need to be managed and recycled in ways that conserve materials and protect the environment.

This transition will require a new mission for the industry that promotes human health and environmental quality as seriously as the market promotes economic efficiency and product effectiveness. Put conceptually, a sustainable chemical industry would be one that optimizes value from the use of chemicals, adds no new risks to everyday life, increases natural capital, minimizes the transfer of risks from one generation to another, respects and enhances the natural functioning of the planet's ecosystems, and assures no net loss of valuable resources. Creating such an industry will require government policy and market incentives that promote sustainability. This will require financial investment institutions and international development programs that are committed to developing an industry that is as ecologically sound and socially sensitive as it is economically productive.

The avenues for this development are already being laid. Leading firms in the industry and thoughtful government leaders are exploring new goals and new directions. Some of the most progressive firms have established corporate sustainability policies and many of these firms publish annual environmental reports. The chemistry and chemical engineering fields have responded with new professional statements, conferences that explore sustainable directions, and educational curricula and texts that integrate environmental considerations into conventional education (Allen and Rosselot, 1997; Allen and Shonnard, 2002).

A brief review of two of these new directions - chemical stewardship (services) and green chemistry (function) - and then a look to the future, offer illustrations of how the industry may be moved towards sustainability.

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