Use the periodic table for sustainable chemistry
For anyone tasked with assessing chemicals, pinpointing toxicity in chemical formulations can be a daunting challenge. So, how can businesses ensure they make safer, greener choices?
We know that everything is made up of elements – over a 100 million chemicals have been made by the combination of elements but what does it take to make “sustainable chemistry” successful?
The periodic table shows us that we have fewer than 100 elements to produce the materials we need for making products and only 80 if we consider just the ‘stable elements’ that make up the majority. For 60% of those stable elements, a plethora of recent health and environmental research demonstrates toxicity (Malhotra et al., 2020; Brdar-Jokanović, 2020; Chen et al., 2020; Khan et al., 2021; Natasha et al., 2022; de Carvalho Machado and Dinis-Oliveira, 2023). So, this gives a starting point for toxicologists and R&D teams.
Ignoring the pitfalls of toxic chemicals
The problem is that most of the chemicals used to produce goods we depend on in our daily lives lack adequate toxicological studies – that’s approximately 70% on the EU market, and 45% of high production volume (HPV) chemicals in the US.
To make matters worse, some countries still need to define a maximum limit for some toxic elements, for example, arsenic exposure to soil is not regulated in Greece and India.
Turning the table with sustainable chemistry
It’s precisely due to these challenges that an awareness is rising and with gathering momentum we‘re seeing a revolution in the regulation of toxic elements and chemicals worldwide – with a calling for sustainable chemistry.
Sustainable chemistry aims to ensure chemicals used in products and manufacturing processes are not harmful to people and the environment. With environmental protection high on political, business, legal and societal agendas, it plays a crucial part in wider sustainability goals and will become increasingly important.
Sustainable chemistry provides innovative solutions to help comply with regulations but beyond that to proactively choose safer, greener chemicals and formulations before new regulations come into place.
Those working in sustainable chemistry are striving to cultivate a culture focused on safer chemicals. There is a desire to encourage deeper knowledge around chemical hazards and drive forward investigation for safer alternatives, as well as support advancements in more effective product and waste management.
One fundamental question is, “How?” How can sustainable chemistry demonstrate a smart use of the periodic table?
The elements of sustainable chemistry
Much like the alphabet of 26 letters forms millions of words, chemical elements are the foundation blocks of millions of chemicals. The answer to the above-posed question is well described by scientists Anastas and Zimmerman (2019). They designed a conceptual periodic table illustrating attempts and strategies that can ensure the success of sustainable chemistry.
They classified the upper part of the periodic table into four key considerations for sustainable chemistry with classes of aspects specified in a different color that are required for a more sustainable tomorrow
4 key considerations for sustainable chemistry
To verify that chemistry avoids any harm and provides all the basic needs of society such as food, water, security, and buildings through safety policies.
Green chemistry and green engineering
To ensure that the whole life cycle of a chemical or its synthetic, transformed, or newly designed, solvents, catalysts, and other auxiliary materials or even wastes are organized based on principles of green strategies and minimize the potential for environmental trade-offs.
Enabling system conditions
To understand chemistry’s role in future sustainability, to encourage industrial behaviors aligned with benefits beyond financial gains, and to define required regulations, policies, metrics, and tools to accomplish sustainable chemistry.
To consider some transcendent goals that rise above the immediate economic or political concerns of the day, and how chemistry can positively or negatively impact them.
The proposed conceptual periodic table used the alphabet of elements to describe 90 values that could positively impact fulfilling goals in sustainable chemistry. Every single value (element) discussed has the power to strengthen efforts and play a crucial role in reaching sustainable chemistry and sustainable development goals (SDGs).
With 90 values, for some, this may appear to be an arduous method, but it’s hard to deny this is a smart, creative use of the periodic table at a time when we need change in the way we use chemicals.
Detailed information about values is available at Yale School of Environment.
Put sustainable chemistry values into action
Even if all 90 proposed values aren’t possible or applicable to your business, there is a way to embrace the most relevant ones as part of your process and successfully make the shift towards sustainable chemistry. Tighter regulations, personal safety and the protection of the environment demand this.
Uncertainty about chemicals used for processes and products, can in turn mean uncertainty around compliance, so it’s important to be proactive to achieve sustainable chemistry. This involves:
- Finding out all the chemicals in the supply chain and their characteristics
- Leveraging the insights from scientific experts for informed decision-making
- Understanding the impact of chemicals used, on humans and the environment
- Having verified CHAs and key research available
- Anticipating risks in the future
The tools for this powerful mix of education, technology and oversight are available today, it just takes the will from businesses, to engage in the best practices of sustainable chemistry.
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