Do no harm
Green products are great, but not necessarily how they're made. John Warner - a founding father of the "green chemistry" movement - seeks a world where the chemicals we use to manufacture things do little or no harm in the first place
Books have the power to change how we think and behave. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species laid the foundation for evolutionary biology 153 years ago. In 1962, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson sparked the modern-day environmental movement. And in a more focused way, 1998’s The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry by co-authors by John Warner and Paul Anastas gave momentum to the idea that the chemicals we rely on for manufacturing “stuff” don’t have to be toxic cocktails that threaten our health and environment.
Anastas, who first coined the term “green chemistry” in 1991, was at the time a staff chemist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Warner was an industrial chemist at Polaroid trying to get regulatory approval for a new low-impact chemical manufacturing process the EPA didn’t really understand. The two men found themselves allies in an effort to push a concept that was largely foreign to the teachings of chemistry: to make materials in an environmentally benign and responsible way, rather than tolerate harmful side effects.
Warner is now president and chief technology officer at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, an organization he founded in 2007 that is “dedicated to the development of non-toxic, environmentally benign and sustainable technological solutions for society.” Corporate Knights had an opportunity to chat with Warner about the field of green chemistry and why it’s so important.
CK: You are often referred to as one of the founding fathers of green chemistry. What’s behind that reference?
Warner: I was working at Polaroid for 10 years and while there invented a technology (for a benign manufacturing process). I went to the Environmental Protection Agency to go through all the regulatory hurdles and I was having a hard time getting it through. Not because of anything to do with toxicity or environmental impact. It was just different. I found it ironic that the (existing) process we were using used some questionable, nasty stuff and here was a new technology that was head and shoulders better and the EPA was making it more difficult to do new things than continue to do old things. Everyone (at the time) was talking about measuring, monitoring, characterizing, remediating, recycling and dealing with hazardous materials after they’re in commerce, and here I was, a synthetic organic chemist, inventing something that is better in the first place. And although that seemed so obvious and straightforward, there was no language for it. There was no science to actually contemplate that.
CK: Can you explain that last comment, that “There was no science to actually contemplate that”?
Warner: The way science grows is to be communicated, so we create a little pocket of knowledge, we give it a name and we start talking about it in journals and conferences. In 1990, there was no such thing as people communicating how to invent things that are benign in the first place. Everything about pollution was how to deal with it after the fact. The point of “green chemistry” was to come up with a science to grow a body of knowledge so that as we progressed in the future, it would be part of the lexicon of science.
CK: This must have been frustrating at the time.
Warner: I really got discontent about this. I started looking around and I realized that not one college, not one university on the planet trained scientists who make things to identify what makes them toxic. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, architects, engineers; all these professions have to take a test to get a licence and in a few years have to take a test to maintain a licence. My father was an electrician. He couldn’t come to your house and change a light bulb without a document saying he could do it safely. And yet, anyone can take a molecule that has never existed in the universe before – potentially making the most potent neurotoxin in history and nowhere in their education did they get any kind of training to anticipate that. We’re starting to make progress, but it is slow coming.