Green Chemistry and the Future of Sustainability
In an era when toxic substances turn up in everything from our sofa cushions to packaged macaroni and cheese, chemistry has earned a bad rap. But as John Warner sees it, to cast chemistry—specifically synthetic chemistry—in the role of villain is to misunderstand the problem.
After all, the most lethal toxin known to humans—botulinum—is produced naturally, while life-saving drugs like antibiotics are engineered in a lab.
As one of the founders of green chemistry, Warner will be the first to admit that chemicals manufacturing needs to change.
What is green chemistry?
Green chemistry is the design of high-performing, cost-effective technology that is safer for the environment and human health.
“We’re in a world where it’s unequivocal that there are hazardous materials in commerce,” he says. “There are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins. There are materials that are causing global climate change and ozone depletion. As a first step, we have to accept that these things are out there.”
The next step, Warner attests, is to assess how we got to this point in the first place.
Addressing the Root Cause
“Let’s assume that there are no monsters in the world,” Warner says. “Let’s assume this really isn’t an epic battle of good and evil.”
No scientist sets out to invent a red pigment that causes cancer. No company prizes a plastic additive that can lead to birth defects over a safer alternative.
Why, then, do we continue to bring hazardous materials to market? The current state of regulation is one problem (we’ll get to that later). But Warner says that the crux of the issue lies in what chemists are taught—or rather not taught—in school.
Warner arrived at this revelation through personal tragedy. In the 1990s, he was a decade into his career as an industrial chemist. He had over 2,500 synthesized compounds to his credit, when a rare birth defect led to the death of his two-year-old son.
In grief, he was left to wonder about the chemicals he’d created. Could any have contributed to his son’s illness?
Not once in his many years in school, including a PhD program at Princeton, did Warner take a course in toxicology. He hadn’t studied how molecules persist in the environment. Today, nearly three decades later, such topics remain absent from core chemistry curricula in the United States.
“Pick up any organic chemistry textbook and compare it to one from 1980, and I challenge you to find a significant difference,” he says. You won’t even find references to the chemical transformations that drive many industries today.
“How in the world can we ask the inventors of technology to make safe material if it’s not part of how they’ve learned to do chemistry?” Warner asks. “This is not an issue of desire. It’s an issue of ability.”
Principles and Profitability
Warner’s newfound awareness of the education gap came on the heels of another discovery: green practices have a commercial benefit.
As a leading chemist at Polaroid, Warner had invented a way to more efficiently synthesize molecules. By mimicking natural chemical reactions in the manufacturing process, he could reduce waste and conserve energy.
The invention led him to the doors of the Environmental Protection Agency, where he encountered fellow chemist Paul Anastas, who would prove to be a kindred spirit.
In 1998, Warner and Anastas wrote the seminal book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, which lay the foundation for a new way of practicing chemistry.
Within two years of the book’s release, Warner says, the major chemical and pharmaceutical companies had launched green chemistry programs. They were quick to see how such standards could help them manufacture profitable technologies that are nontoxic and environmentally benign.
Ethical dilemmas aside, toxic materials are laborious and expensive to produce—ripe with regulatory impediments and steep liability costs.
Of course, companies can only be as successful as the people they employ. The fact that academia hasn’t kept pace with the needs of society means there’s a dearth of chemists well-versed in green chemistry practices.
A Lack of Oversight
For too long, Warner says, science has suppressed the narrative of harm. The work of chemists should be grounded in the environmental and social contexts of our times.
“We have all these factions in society worrying about toxicity, environmental impact, the policies and law governing chemicals,” Warner says. “And for some bizarre reason, the field of chemistry itself has been devoid of these components.”
There have been strides. Universities today offer electives in green chemistry, and most have at least one faculty member who embraces green chemistry. But a seismic shift requires systemic change. For that, there is currently no oversight.
Unlike the many professions that require practitioners to take board exams and earn a license—teaching, medicine, engineering—chemistry has no formal credentialing.
“My father was an electrician,” Warner once shared in a speech. “He couldn’t come into your house to change a lightbulb unless he had a document that said he could do it safely. How is it possible that the only humans on the planet given the gift of making a new molecule have absolutely no responsibility to anticipate if they’re about to make the most potent neurotoxin in history?”
Leading by Example
Warner says he understands that holistic change is difficult. Through various initiatives over the years, he’s worked to create models and share knowledge.
In 1997, he established the first PhD program in green chemistry at the University of Massachusetts. Graduates were scooped up by corporations within days of commencement—illustrating the demand that continues to this day.
Warner's lab at UMass drew a range of researchers: from visiting professors to high school interns. Regardless of experience, however, each lab member was required to regularly visit a third-grade classroom to discuss his or her research.
This gesture is emblematic of one of Warner’s core commitments: to build a safer and more sustainable future, we have to inspire the next generation to pursue STEM careers.
To support this mission, Warner left academia in 2007. He founded the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and Beyond Benign, an educational nonprofit.
“We feel that if students haven’t had a positive experience in science by the eighth grade, they’ll never become a scientist,” says Warner. “We desperately need creative, innovative, and diverse people to come into the chemistry field to invent better material.”
Beyond Benign provides educational resources that promote sustainable and green chemistry practices. For K–12 teachers, there are professional development opportunities and free curricula, including over 200 lesson plans.
The nonprofit is engaging higher education institutions primarily through its Green Chemistry Commitment. To date, over 50 chemistry departments have signed, agreeing to meet common learning objectives and serve in working groups to foster ongoing improvements.
On the innovation front, Warner oversees the Warner Babcock Institute, where 20 scientists invent technologies for commercial clients using the 12 principles of green chemistry. The aim? A lean and agile innovation process that factors in commercial and practical applications from the outset—leading more quickly to a marketable solution that’s sustainable and free of regulatory hurdles.
Inspiring and educating future chemists addresses an urgent need. But an overhaul of chemicals policy is also essential, says Warner.
Currently, safety is assessed after a material is invented—and often after it’s used in products in the marketplace.
In an article Warner co-authored for Nature magazine, he outlines a testing and reporting process that would better inform scientists in the design stage and the wider public at the purchase stage. There are three recommendations.
Standardize chemical safety tests
Currently, there are no universal methods for evaluating a compound’s safety. Different tests yield different results—and often conflicting messages about a chemical’s safety (BPA is a case in point).
Instead, Warner champions the design of universal assays that test for particular endpoints, e.g., liver toxicity, ozone depletion, or endocrine disruption.
Test finished products
In this model, these tests would be used on final products, which would be scored for their potential to harm. This would replace the assessment of individual ingredients, which can be misleading: molecules that are benign in isolation can become harmful in combination.
Publicize test results
Test scores would be printed on product packaging, allowing the consumer to better understand the risks certain products pose and purchase according to those standards.
Expanding the Conversation
The challenges ahead are daunting but not insurmountable. Warner is optimistic. By reframing the chemistry narrative, he aims not only to better educate chemists—but to also reorient the public.
“We don't really celebrate the solving of problems; we celebrate the identification of the problem,” Warner says. “That's just what sells in our society. … because of that, chemistry has turned into a bad word.”
The truth is, says Warner, “a key path to a sustainable future is if the chemists invent better technology.”
And in Warner’s ideal world, every chemist is well equipped to face that challenge. And every interdisciplinary team has a chemist in its ranks.