Green Chemistry Science and Policy Research

Green liquid in chemistry bottle
Five examples from my green chemistry science and policy research in progress illustrate the variety of topics that can be investigated as part of a STE perspective. These examples share a focus on the processes of knowledge production and transfer that shape contemporary industrial systems such as that of the international chemical industry. The examples span different scales from laboratory to industrial system, and from state government to international policy-making levels.

Defining sustainability. What does green chemistry mean? Green chemistry can have multiple meanings, including a narrow focus on reducing the toxicity of molecules, a broader emphasis on reducing waste and using biomass chemistry, and a broad sustainability rubric that includes compatibility with ecosystems as well as energy and matter efficiency. Expert politics play a central role in shaping the meanings of green chemistry that prevail in industry, government, and communities. These politics also influence views of whether green chemistry should be purely a voluntary endeavor that chemists control, or whether toxicologists, public health experts, regulators, and even environmental NGOs can play a legitimate role in deciding on what counts as green chemistry.

Measuring and marketing greenness. Green chemistry metrics are another crucial influence on industry and chemists. Making metrics can help define the kinds of environmental and health impacts that various actors associate with chemicals. Measuring the "greenness" of a chemical or a reaction involves making choices about how far to look up and down the production chain. Different environmental and social problems can come into view, depending on which metrics a company or a researcher chooses to use. For example, if a company uses the E-factor, its emphasis is likely to be on reducing waste and increasing efficiency. Yet alternative metrics might highlight who is being exposed to the substance, and the environmental zones that the substance is being released into.

Viewing the trajectories of industrial systems. Green chemistry illustrates the kinds of challenges that a transition towards industrial sustainability raises. In particular, what does technology mean, and how does technology take form? Which technologies become established as seen as "working", rather than others? The case of catalysts (or technologies that speed up and make reactions more selective) provides an instructive example. Catalysts - including Ziegler-Natta catalysts and the new generations of "designer" catalysts - have come to be one of the most prevalent forms of green chemistry used in industry practice, whereas other areas have been much less actively developed. This is in part because catalysts fit with the entrenched operating norms of industry much more, namely maximizing yields and reaction efficiency.

Making knowledge for policy-making and the market place. One of the hidden but critical parts of greening chemistry is the broader societal knowledge context in which decisions, research, and marketing occurs. For example, green chemistry has been developing in almost invisible processes within scientific and commercial settings for almost 20 years. But consumer products are increasingly viewed as sources of chemical risks. In the past year and half, some consumers in the US have realized that their cosmetics and Teflon-coated pans might, after all, pose risks to their health. The science remains uncertain and ambiguous. Nonetheless, risk perceptions may be changing a little. How has this transition occurred? What may be the implications for green chemistry of seeing products as inherently risky?

life cycle imageThe role of institutions and governmental systems. Environmental regulation and policy are not uniform everywhere. Why do the US and European Union diverge greatly when it comes to regulating chemicals? Why does Europe have increasingly stringent standards and a much larger number of prohibited substances, whereas the US lags in targeting chemical risks in consumer products? Why do green chemists in Britain appear more willing than their US counterparts to embrace NGO and consumer inputs? And why are state governments in the US increasingly more disposed than their federal counterparts to take regulatory action? Is the California Effect combining with the European Union Effect? An analysis of civic epistemology, governmental systems, and regulatory processes helps understand these developments.

By combining these various cases and theoretical concepts, I can provide new insights into how scientific and technological developments take form and change.