Taking Green Chemistry Out Of The Lab and into Products

Paul Anastas pioneered the concept of green chemistry and has led the effort to rethink the way we design and make the products we use. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about the challenges of bringing this approach to policy making and the frustrations of tackling environmental issues in a politically polarized era.

Paul Anastas is credited with coining the term “green chemistry,” the movement to make chemicals and industrial processes more environmentally friendly, and during two stints in Washington, D.C., he has worked to promote those principles at the U.S. Environmental Protection. He has also noted, with regret, the deteriorating political climate in government, particularly when it comes to environmental matters.

“The dynamic around so many issues — and sadly, especially around environmental issues — is tremendously polarized,” Anastas says. Indeed, his own appointment as EPA assistant administrator and science advisor was held up for months in 2009, because of an unrelated dispute between a powerful Republican Senator and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Paul Anastas
Michael Marsland/
Yale University
Paul Anastas
Anastas, 49, recently left his high-ranking post at the EPA to return to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he serves as a professor. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, he talked about his role in EPA’s controversial decision to approve the use of chemical dispersants in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, why a chemical-by-chemical approach to toxicity testing is not the best model for protecting the environment or human health, and why companies are increasingly applying the principles of green chemistry to the design of materials and products.

“For every one process or product that’s being reinvented using green chemistry and green engineering,” Anastas said, “there may be a hundred or a thousand that have yet to be rethought under these terms.”

Yale Environment 360: I’m wondering whether this time around you found the working environment in Washington different than previous times you’ve worked in government there. And if so, how so?

Paul Anastas: The dynamic around so many issues — and sadly, especially around environmental issues — is tremendously polarized and more polarized than I’d ever seen it during all my years in Washington. I first went to Washington as a young kid fresh out of grad school. This would have been 23 years ago, and whether it was the first Bush presidency, the Clinton presidency, George W. Bush or the Obama Administration, I have never seen things so polarized as they are now.

There’s that old saying that everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. That’s really important when you’re dealing with environmental issues, but especially the science of environmental protection. Facts need to reign supreme… When people do selectively use facts to make arguments, it doesn’t help the dialogue. And this really has caused tremendous obstacles to making important progress on crucial issues.

e360: Of the issues you were involved in this time around at the EPA, what was the one that was most affected by the current political climate in Washington?

Anastas: Well, certainly climate change is extremely polarizing, and people have put in quite an effort to make sure that it is a polarizing issue. It’s one of these issues that if you follow the science, if you follow the data, it does not have to be polarizing. It doesn’t have to be a win/lose situation. I believe that people often resort to polarization because they view these issues as a choice between winning and losing and zero-sum games. But when we see that technological innovations and policy innovations allow for win/win situations, all of a sudden you get people who were formerly opposed to each other finding ways of working together. And more than anything else, that’s why a big part of my time down in Washington has been devoted to sustainability and innovation and how we move ahead on that.

e360: What was the achievement that you were able to accomplish at EPA this time that was most significant to you?

Anastas: I think that seeing how the agency has structured itself in moving toward using science, using technology in order to not just make things a little bit less bad, not just reduce risk a little bit, but to actually start thinking about how do you move toward sustainable products, processes, and systems. How do you use the idea of innovation, even transformative innovations, to create economic value and environmental health both at the same time? How do you think in terms of systems, rather than dealing with one problem at a time in a fragmented way. Those types of transformations I think are fundamental to new thinking at EPA and to addressing environmental issues in general.

e360: Probably the greatest environmental crisis that happened at the time you were at EPA was the BP oil spill. You spent many months down there [in the Gulf of Mexico] right after the spill working on the response, and one of the decisions made at the time that was criticized by some environmentalists was the decision to use dispersants to deal with the spill. In retrospect, do you feel that decision was justified and the right decision to make?

Anastas:During the spill, one of the things that a number of people, including myself, made a point of saying with regard to the oil was, “Keep it off the shore, keep it off the shore, keep it off the shore.” Why? Because the most pristine, most fertile ecosystems — where life is most fragile, where so many hatcheries exist and life begins for so many different species — are right there along one of our most precious ecosystems, the Gulf Coast. So if the imperative
When we look at the Gulf Coast today, it does not look as though 11 Exxon Valdez’s crashed into the coast.”
was to keep it off the shore, then first of all, all efforts needed to be put into stopping the flow of oil. Until you can stop the oil, you want to collect the oil. You want to skim the oil, you want to burn it if you have to. You use all the mechanical methods you can to gather up as much of the oil as possible. And when you have exhausted those efforts, and there’s still oil that’s going to be released, what do you do?

So the very difficult decisions had to be made. Can you use dispersants to put the oil in a form where it is able to be consumed and digested and metabolized by organisms? Because it’s one thing for oil to become more dilute, it’s one thing for oil to evaporate, but the only way that the oil truly goes away is for it to be transformed down to carbon dioxide and water, which is what happens when it’s metabolized by these microorganisms.

Coming back to the data, if we look at what actually happened, except for the area right around the well head, the rates of degradation were far quicker, far faster than we ever would have anticipated. So there was a breakdown of the oil. The levels of oil broke down very quickly… And soon thereafter, we saw no detectable traces of the dispersant at all because, as expected, they had degraded. Do we have perfect knowledge? No, that’s why we test, test, and test some more. But if we follow the data, it seems as though it may have been the right decision. Because when we look at the Gulf Coast today, it does not look as though 11 Exxon Valdez has crashed into the Gulf Coast — and that’s how much oil was released, the equivalent of 11 Exxon Valdez’s.

e360: One issue that got settled near the end of your tenure this time at EPA was setting safe exposure levels for dioxin…

Anastas: My last day, actually.

e360: This was a move that had been opposed by industry groups for years. Why do you think that assessment took so long? Was it because of the opposition? The political sensitivity of it? And what impact do you think setting this assessment and these standards will have?

Anastas: When it comes to environmental protection generally, there’s nothing more important than awareness. There’s nothing more important than information. So the fact that it took 22-plus years to have the dioxin assessment come out, the fact that it takes almost equally long for things like perchloroethylene or trichlorothylene, for these assessments to come out, is antithetical to good environmental protection.

It makes no sense to be assessing one chemical at a time when we know there are over 100,000 chemicals in commerce today and that there are over 4,000 chemicals being invented or discovered every day, and when
“It makes no sense to be assessing one chemical at a time when there are over 100,000 chemicals in commerce.”
according to at least one Nobel laureate in chemistry, there’s potentially 10 to the 63rd new chemicals yet to be invented of modest molecular weight. The idea that this chemical-by-chemical approach is giving us the kind of information we need in a timely way that is actionable and that is going to protect people’s lives is probably not the best long-term model for effective environmental protection and protection of human health.

That’s one of the reasons why we put such an emphasis on something called ToxCast, where you have not just one or five or 10 assessments, but you are able to screen hundreds and thousands of chemicals across hundreds of different toxic end points. This year alone we expect almost 10,000 chemicals to have this kind of toxicological screening. The idea is to get the awareness with many chemicals at one percent of the cost as it takes to do traditional toxicological testing.

That’s the kind of transformative innovation that we need in environmental protection. It’s not just getting lots of data on how bad something is. If anybody didn’t know that dioxin was very, very, very bad for you before that assessment came out, then they must have been living under a stone somewhere. The most important thing about this data is not only understanding how bad something is for you, but using those lessons of why those substances are toxic and using it to design the next generation of chemicals so they can’t be toxic. That’s what green chemistry is all about. It’s designing our next generation of products and processes so they can’t harm humans or the environment.

e360: During an earlier stint at EPA, you were head of the green chemistry division, and you’ve actually been called “the father of green chemistry.” Can you explain a little more of what the concept of green chemistry is, and how that influenced the work you did at the EPA?

Anastas:Green chemistry starts from the fundamental fact that everything that we see, touch and feel is a chemical — whether natural or synthetic, they’re all chemicals. We basically have two things in this world, energy and matter. Green chemistry is redesigning the matter that’s the basis of our society and our economy and the materials that are
“Green chemistry is about as fundamental and as crosscutting as you can imagine.”
used in all of the products we use so that it’s more sustainable and less harmful to humans and the environment. It’s about as fundamental and crosscutting as you can imagine. In the same way that these chemicals and materials can be designed so they’re of a particular color, whether it’s red or blue, or whether a plastic is brittle or flexible, you can now have the beginnings of how to design these materials so they’re not going to be toxic, they’re not going to persist in the environment, they’re not going to bioaccumulate in our bodies, and they’re not going to interfere with reproduction or neurological development.

That’s what green chemistry is about. It’s getting all of the performance and capabilities from the products that enable our quality of life, but doing it in a way that doesn’t cause unintended consequences for our health and the environment. That’s why it has been something that’s been adopted by companies around the world. There are now green chemistry research networks in 33 countries… Green chemistry has been transformed over the years from theory into practice.

Now there’s good news, and there’s better news. The good news is that this is something being practiced by some of the most visionary companies, some of the real leaders in industry across many sectors. The better news is that all of those accomplishments so far represent a small sliver, a tiny fraction of the power of the potential of green chemistry. So for every one process or product that’s being reinvented using green chemistry and green engineering, there may be a hundred or a thousand that have yet to be rethought under these terms. So the upside both for profitability and economic benefits, as well as environmental and health benefits, has yet to be realized and is on the horizon.

e360: Can you give me an example of a breakthrough or innovation in green chemistry that you think was particularly significant?

Anastas: Well, we know that solvents are some of the most highly regulated substances and that they are of highest concern and are used in extremely high volumes. And they’re used in everything from large industrial processes to fingernail polish to household cleaners to large extraction operations that decaffeinate our coffee. Many of these [solvents] have been very toxic, either in terms of their potential for being a carcinogen or for damaging the ozone layer. They can be environmentally toxic or toxic to human health and the environment, so the redesign of solvents is a tremendously active area of green chemistry. Turning carbon dioxide into a liquid or what’s called a super-critical fluid is being used in industrial processes and even used as a dry-cleaning solvent as an alternative to perchloroethylene. That’s something that’s transformative.

e360: Can you give me another example?

Anastas: For instance, in certain chemical transformations that are used to make drugs and pharmaceuticals, people my age when they were students learned that you could not do certain types of organic chemistry in water. It was just impossible. And yet there’s a professor named C.J. Li
“Every major pharmaceutical company is now looking at how they can use green chemistry.”
up at McGill University who has demonstated that no, you don’t have to use these exotic solvents, these toxic solvents. You can do these things right in water, and you have better selectivity, less wastes, and lower cross-toxicity, and by demonstrating that, he has shown the pharmaceutical industry how to dramatically reduce its waste. In the pharmaceutical industry historically, you would generate a pound of product while you generate a thousand pounds, a ton, of waste. A ton of waste per pound of product is not ideal, especially if some of that waste itself is hazardous or if you’re making an anti-cancer drug, and you are generating a carcinogenic waste. It’s not a good equation…

I was lucky enough to be a part of forming the green chemistry pharmaceutical roundtable a number of years ago. Every major pharmaceutical company is now looking at how they can use green chemistry, and this is good for them both in terms of reducing their wastes and also for increasing the productivity of their product. The processes are more efficient. They are making more profits, and so it’s good economically as well as environmentally. And that’s one of the clean little secrets of green chemistry — at the same time as [companies] are making things that are more environmentally benign and less wasteful, they are also making more money and introducing new capabilities and new efficiencies.

e360: Well, I understand that somewhere in your office in Washington, D.C., there was commendation from President Nixon for an essay you wrote while you were in elementary school on the creation of the EPA. Tell the story behind that.


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Anastas: I was a young boy growing up in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, and I grew up overlooking a beautiful pristine wetland with lots and lots of wildlife. I used to go down there, walking and hiking and just enjoying every day. And then the bulldozers came. If you go to where my old house stands, it’s overlooking basically glass-and-steel office buildings, banks, insurance companies, and big parking lots.

And so that broke the heart of an elementary-school boy. I was so distraught that my father Nick Anastas, who was a high school biology teacher, said to me, “If you really love something, you need to care enough to learn about it.” So more than anything else, that’s probably what drove me to be a scientist who is committed to protecting the environment. I decided if you learn about something, then you can learn how to protect it.