Moving Towards Sustainability

The challenge of creating a sustainable future requires directly addressing the chemical industry. The products and consequences of this one industry so shape the material basis of our contemporary economy as to be a central factor in determining its future. We will not achieve sustainability unless this industry is reconceived. The linear flow of materials that is largely indifferent to the ingenious and elegant processes of natural systems and overbearing in its disgorge of hazardous wastes cannot be a model for the future.

New directions for the industry are emerging. Chemical stewardship, green chemistry, biomimicy, chemical substitution, and nanotechnology all provide approaches that are potentially cleaner, greener, and more productive. At this point they are marginal initiatives. However, the history of industrial change is full of examples of marginal developments growing to revolutionize conventional practices.

Each of the new directions for the chemical industry described here requires more and better information. In order to phase out the worst chemicals we need better information on the thousands of chemicals that remain on the market with little or no health and hazard information. In order to develop effective chemicals stewardship infrastructures, we will need to build and maintain a comprehensive chemicals tracking system that permits industries and government to monitor the flow of chemicals. In order to develop greener chemicals and chemical processes we need more information about how chemicals behave in the environment and in our own bodies. Finally, we need information that is more accessible to the public if consumers and workers are going to have more of a role in encouraging the industry to manufacture chemicals that are functional and safe.

As pressures mount for a world more respectful of resource limits and the material needs of future generations, the chemical industry must find its own path to sustainability. Much of the groundwork has already been laid. Enormous investments in research, instrumentation, and experimentation over the past half-century have produced a wealth of knowledge about chemicals and their behavior. That information is now as valuable as the chemicals themselves. Knowing how to make materials and how to make them safely and sustainably provides the basis for the changes now needed in the chemical industry.

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