Bringing Chemistry to Life

The Father of Green Chemistry

Episode Summary

In this remarkable interview we meet Paul Anastas, the father of green chemistry, current professor at Yale University, former assistant administrator for the U.S. EPA, and former White House Science and Technology Policy advisor. Paul opens our eyes to the lack of sustainability in our current chemical processes and provides a roadmap of how we can create solutions that are both sustainable and profitable. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime interview that will motivate you to think differently.

Episode Notes

Visit to access the extended video version of this episode and the episode summary sheet, which contains links to recent publications and additional content recommendations for our guest. You can also access the extended video version of this episode via our YouTube channel to hear, and see, more of the conversation!

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This is a big one. When one of the most influential chemists of a generation gives you a full hour of his time, you can say your chemistry podcast has made it!

This conversation with Paul Anastas (Yale University), the father of Green Chemistry, is an inspiration to think differently. He favors disrupting common rules and to stop accepting the status quo, given that the status quo is not sustainable.

The “green shift” towards sustainable processes in chemistry and engineering is the revolution than we can’t afford to miss. We do not need any more evidence. The silliness in the way we do things is in front of our eyes, we just need to be willing to look and see it. 

When we make 1000 kilograms of waste per kilograms or product, there is no future. When we keep producing, using, and discharging in a linear way, there is no future. When governments and private companies don’t embrace environmental responsibility as part of their performance metrics, there is no future.

Paul and his co-author Urvashi Bhatnagar have written The Sustainability Scorecard – How to Implement and Profit from Unexpected Solutions to outline the green chemistry principles that show the way to a sustainable future in chemistry. The pursuit of sustainability offers what they call “unexpected solutions;” leaps forwards that make new processes not only more sustainable, but also more efficient, cheaper, and more profitable. There are many great examples, with many more to come. 

Disrupt or be disrupted.

Episode Transcription

Dr. Paul Anastas  00:06

If we are going to actually be able to have business, commerce, products, quality of life well into the future, it's going to have to be with a different perspective.


Paolo  00:19

You cannot talk about the field of green chemistry without also talking about the work of Professor Paul Anastas. Over the past 30 years, his research and philosophy have shaped how we think about sustainability, and pointed us in the direction of a brighter, greener future. Welcome back to Bringing Chemistry to Life. I'm Paolo Braiuca, Director of Global Market Development at Thermo Fisher Scientific and host of the show. We began with a bit of Professor Anastas' background and how he got first interested in environmental science.


Dr. Paul Anastas  00:54

I was a small boy and just outside of Boston, a little town called Quincy. And I lived right on the river separating Quincy from Boston. And it was the most beautiful wetlands that you can ever imagine, it was just filled with like wildlife, it was just gorgeous. But if you go up to where I grew up, you won't see those wetlands anymore. You'll see very large banks and office buildings and an office park because the bulldozers rolled in when I was about eight or nine years old. And it just absolutely devastated me. Now, I was lucky enough to have a dad who was a high school biology teacher. And one of the things I remember he said to me was, “You know, if you really care about something, then you care enough to learn about it.” And I guess at that point, I knew that I was going to be a scientist. And I knew that I was going to be a scientist in the service of the environment. And so that's really where my, my mindset started from.


Paolo  02:02

So, as you as you've gone from being a young boy into, you know, progressing in your studies, and, you know, getting into, you know, chemistry eventually, getting into something related to the environment. Did you always have this in mind? Do you have a doubt? You know, did you I'm sure you had some challenges along the way, right?


Dr. Paul Anastas  02:22

Well, I'll tell you, when I went into chemistry, I've just been absolutely fascinated and still consider chemistry to be, you know, a modern technical miracle. It's a scientific miracle of what we can, can do, I believe. For some reason, we've been given the gift of being able to understand matter, and its transformations. I mean, this is absolutely astounding. So, I love chemistry, and I am an a very proud chemist. Now, did I have any doubt about wanting to be a chemist? No. But I, I have to say that when I looked around at chemistry, you know, through graduate school, and right after, I looked around and said, you know, we can do better. And what green chemistry is all about is just recognizing, taking a hard look at how we've done things for 200 years, and saying, we can do better. My mindset started from this.


Paolo  03:31

Thinking behind chemistry, the chemical philosophy, if you wish, is never evolved, and becoming a sort of mainstream approach. The way we think about chemistry has never really fundamentally changed.


Dr. Paul Anastas  03:43

And I think that I think that that's exactly the right question. The way that we think about chemistry, people often focus on what we do. But what we do reflects how we think, right? So, we started at a at a time, when just carrying out these transformations, just creating these new products was absolutely astounding. It was something that, as I say, close to a technological miracle, that you can actually manipulate things that you never have any hope of actually seeing at that level, and transforming them into useful products that transform our lives and our quality of life, you know, in the modern world. But what we didn't understand. What we didn't understand is all of the unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of toxicity, the unintended consequences of hazard, the unintended consequences of depleting finite resources, unintended consequences of changing the nature of our climate and our atmosphere. And so, as time passed, and we got a greater and greater understanding of those of those unintended consequences, we really had a moral and ethical obligation of building those into the way that we did things. And so, 30 years ago, back in, back in the early 90s, that's what green chemistry was all about is saying, “Hold it, we need a grand unification of making sure that when we define performance, that performance now needs to include that it is not only, a product is not only functional and, and provides a great service. It's also that it doesn't cause adverse consequences to humans or the biosphere of the planet.” So, that's what we really are striving for.


Paolo  05:54

This is kind of fascinating to me how you can challenge a very well established way of thinking without a particular external urge, right? There was nothing in the 90s, probably just forcing you to think in a different way. Perhaps you can have some of these drivers right now.


Dr. Paul Anastas  06:11

Well, I have to say, when my students come to me, and they'll ask, “Oh, what kind of interesting problems should I look at? How do I engage in innovation?” I'll say, “Yeah, take a look around and look for the absurdity. And as soon as you find the absurdity, you have found your place in having really impactful innovation.” So, what do I mean by that? Looking around, even in the early 90s, had to recognize that something that is still true today, that if you look across all manufacturing, the vast majority, well over 90%, of all of the materials that go into a manufacturing process, wind up as waste. I mean, that's shocking. That is astounding. And, yes, that is absurd, right? And so, when you take a step back, and you say hold it, loosely, as chemists, we always like to calculate yield of a reaction, oh, I want to get 100% yield, when you can get 100% yield, and 300% waste, that is not victory. That is not something that we should be celebrating. So, a lot of it came down to measuring the wrong things and thinking in the wrong ways. So, whether it's the amount of waste and the efficiency of us of our processes, and our transformations, or, more importantly, the character and the nature of the materials that we use, meaning, is it toxic? Is it depleting? You know, is it degrading of ecosystems, that's the character and the nature. So, you not only have to take a look at the efficiency, but also, most importantly, have to understand the consequence. I love the saying by John Muir that, you know, you've come to realize that, “When you tug on anything, it's connected to everything else in the universe.” And so, when we talk about sustainability, for instance, we will say, oh, we want to reduce our carbon footprint, or we want to conserve water, or we want to have energy efficiency. But we know when we're talking about sustainability, that climate is inextricably linked to energy, energy to water, water to agriculture, agriculture to health and on and on. So, when we say that we're going to reduce our carbon footprint, we need to recognize that if we don't work in a systems way, then we're going to wind up causing these unintended consequences. And that's why ultimately, the 12 principles are a system. So it seems as though you know, a lot of folks when they step back, don't necessarily realize that the 12 principles cut across the entirety of the lifecycle. You know, they go from the origins of the feedstocks, through all of the transformations, through the use phase, through the end of life, and how you make that end of life circular. But yet, when they were introduced, people viewed them as individual. Why? Well, perhaps because that's a little bit more comfortable, you can make progress and what you know how to do best. And so, if you know how to do catalysis, fantastic. If you know how to introduce a new solvent, wonderful, right? Now, what people are understanding is, oh, this is a cohesive design framework that cuts across all of it.


Paolo  09:46

Do you think that we took chemistry fundamentally wrong for whatever reason at the beginning? Because we failed look at how nature does things and nature is an equilibrium, right? And, you know, oversimplifying a little bit. Nature starts from fully oxidized species and reduces, right? Chemistry starts from 90% of the feedstock is probably coming from oil somehow. So it's fully reduced species that we oxidize. Why is that? I've asked my questions a lot of time. But you know, the way we do chemistry in the lab and in industry is the opposite of what nature does. Nature must know better, right?


Dr. Paul Anastas  10:28

Yes, nature is better than us. There is no doubt about that. The more we try to compete with nature and show that we're better than nature, the more we embarrass ourselves. We don't do so well, by comparison. So, I'm completely in agreement that nature is our best mentor, nature is our best teacher, and nature is our best partner. Now, that said, I am going to try to not fault the chemists in history. Because I think that it's really important to understand. We can only work at our highest levels of knowledge at the time. And Einstein famously said, “Problems can't be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Right? Now, I tip my hat to the people of a century ago and beyond and over the course of the 20th century, with all of their discoveries. But you're right. In retrospect, there is no doubt in my mind that the closer we get to mimicking nature, the closer we'll get to, toward the ideal and toward sustainability.


Paolo  11:37

in order to conjugate that with the need to do business in the short term, because that's the challenge, right? So, there are the industry markets, and you know, the infrastructure is set up in a certain way. And change takes investment, costs, risks. And unfortunately, the way I see sustainability done most of the time is as a sort of an afterthought, or is it because people have to do it, because there are policies and regulations and things like that. So, its risk management is how you define it in the book. Isn't there more than more than a fundamental part of the business model? Is that Is that true? In all the cases? How do you see this evolving?


Dr. Paul Anastas  12:17

We have run the experiment of short-term thinking for well over a century, and we've seen where it's gotten us, right? So, this idea that you need to be immediately responsive, as a company, to the next quarterly report, and the constant increase in shareholder value is something that is not a long term, a long-term model. This is something that was derived out of court cases and legal findings at the time of Henry Ford in the in the 20s and has just taken hold. Now, we have to recognize that many private companies, especially family-owned companies, don't think in the short term, and it's no coincidence that so many of these companies are far more visionary, far more, quite frankly, responsible. And so it's, we have to recognize, are we judging our business models? Are we judging our successes and failures based on flawed economic models that got us into this mess? And do we really believe that those same economic models are going to be the ones that are going to get us out of it? Now, I'm sure you heard the announcement that Yvonne, the owner, and founder of Patagonia, recently turned over the company, basically, to climate-oriented NGOs. I think that is something that deserves more than a couple of days of headlines. That is something that should cause everyone to pause and say, “Yes, business can lead. Business can do this by changing its perspective.” Changing perspective is one of the most important things. If we're going to, we're going to do things differently, we're going to have to think differently. So, when we say, “Oh, such and such a manufacturing process, that's not economically viable, or that's not the most profitable way to do things.” We have to ask ourselves about the framework and relative to what. So, that's a long-winded answer to say, if we are going to actually be able to have business, commerce, products, quality of life well into the future is going to have to be with a different perspective. I've done some of the calculations and long before things actually run out and the wells go dry, we will have an uninhabitable Earth before the resources actually run out. So, I'm going to say something that's controversial to some of my very close and dear environmental friends. And the controversial thing is that if we are going to make progress, at scale, and on the timeframe that we need to make progress, those who have been making money and building businesses over the over the decades, that are responsible for many of the problems, are going to have to make a lot of money off the solutions. There's a lot of invested capital, a lot of invested pipe in the ground, a lot of invested factories and infrastructure, that will not go willingly into just becoming stranded assets. Of course, we need to find the policy mechanisms to recognize that these large entities have to find an off ramp to become more sustainable, to be part of the solution, to use their brilliance and innovation. And move that in a sustainable direction. Now, that might not be a popular perspective. But I do believe it's necessary for progress.


Paolo  16:40

We hope you're enjoying this episode of Bringing Chemistry to Life. Stay tuned at the end of the episode for information on how to access content recommendations from our guest, particularly important this time with Professor Anastas with us, as well as information on how to register for a free Bringing Chemistry to Life t-shirt. But now back to our conversation. 


Paolo  17:02

You say in your book, it's not sustainable if he's not profitable. Right? And I guess I guess this is what you're trying to say here? Well, it's going to be an opportunity for business as well.


Dr. Paul Anastas  17:14

It is an opportunity for business. And I think that that is critically important and that I would suggest the business has to be a part of a critical part of the solution. Because quite frankly, if I look back on the past 100, 150 years, I don't know of another force that can bring about change faster, and at scale, than these markets and the business environment. And I really do, thank you so much for bringing up the book. I knew we were going to talk about it. So, I have a copy right here on the bookshelf.


Paolo  17:53

Can we go there then? Yeah. Okay. Can we speak about motivation? Some are obvious, you know, based on the discussion so far, but you know, I'm sure there's more to it.


Dr. Paul Anastas  18:02

Yeah. So, I was lucky enough to be invited by our business school at Yale, the School of Management at Yale University, to develop a new MBA program. I basically said, we are training the next generation of leaders in management and business. But yet, classically in the classic MBA, we’re not teaching about the things that they are, that are causing some of their biggest concerns, and some of the biggest concerns that every CEO is, needs to deal with now, our sustainability concerns. Whether it's climate or water, or biodiversity, consumer marketing campaigns on environment. And so, we're able to develop a new MBA on sustainability. And one of my first students was Urvashi Bhatnagar. And she, she was just a wonderful student. And when she heard some of my perspectives on green chemistry, green engineering, and sustainability, she, she was the one that made the suggestion. You know, all of this is directly relevant to business and the way that I connected it to business, she said, “This needs to be put into a, into a book.” And I said, “Well, I've only written scientific and technical books, how can I do that?” She said, “Let’s do it together.” And so, her perspectives on business and you know, and mine on science, I think that's really what drove us because it fills a niche. I think that haven’t been there before.


Paolo  19:38

There's a lot of interesting points. Coming out to the book from my perspective, and I'm coming as you from the scientific angle. I'm a chemist by training. With The Sustainability Scorecard, basically, you provide sort of guidelines, a framework, and you also offer a perspective on how to get there progressively because it's never going to go from zero to 100% in a single leap. Would you like to explain a little bit how the, you know, the concepts behind The Sustainability Scorecard and how they are linked to the principle of green chemistry?


Dr. Paul Anastas  20:13

Yeah, sure. I think that it's really important that in many ways, the book is all about how we change our thinking in order to come up with new, new solutions that we didn't know and how to profit from them, right? So, it's about things like ways of not just simply avoiding waste, for instance. And that's not just for manufacturing, that's across all businesses. But this idea that nature does not have the concept of waste. Right? The concept of waste does not exist in nature. It's something that humans invented because it's a reflection of our lack of imagination. You know, when nature generates a waste, an organism evolves to utilize that waste as a, as food or feedstock. So, how we rethink the concept of waste and eliminate it to transform it. That's, that's critically important. How we move from the way that we measure things, just from, you know, things like efficiency, into effectiveness. You know, when I tell folks, efficiency has no value, efficiency only gets its value from the nobility of the action. Efficiency will help you do the thing that you're doing better, but it’s not going to help you do a better thing. And so this brings us down to another concept in the book of the compass and the speedometer, and how the compass is so much more important than the speedometer. It doesn't make any difference how fast you get in, you’re going, if you're, if you're headed in the wrong direction. These types of concepts and building them into the way, that we think there are metrics we use to measure progress, are where many of those hidden successes are for business.


Paolo  22:15

You speak about these unexpected solutions, right? That's, that is a fantastic idea. Can you elaborate on that. Can you explain what that is?


Dr. Paul Anastas  22:23

Well, one of my favorite examples, I was lucky enough to have a student, a postdoctoral fellow in my lab. His name is Dr. Stafford Sheehan. And we did some work on catalysis that could split water, sea water into hydrogen and oxygen. You take out hydrogen and then use it to combine with our biggest, most threatening waste these days and CO2. When you combine hydrogen like green hydrogen and, and CO2, you can make things like alcohol and ethanol. And that's really nice because it is launched to something called AIR Vodka, and vodka. The AIR Vodka is the first carbon negative vodka, first carbon negative spirit, and its winning awards around the world is to delicious luxury vodka. I always laugh because my friends will say, “Hold it, carbon negative vodka. All the vodka in the world isn't going to make a scratch in the climate change problem.” I say “No, that's not the point. The point is to capture people's imaginations.” To show that if you can transform CO2 into a luxury vodka, then you can transform CO2 into many other things. The first carbon neutral, sustainable aviation fuel was launched, and now is having contracts with JetBlue, contracts with Virgin Atlantic Airlines to use this carbon neutral, sustainable aviation fuels from CO2. As people look at all of the power and the potential of green chemistry, the more that they are, recognizing the benefits that can be made, not just in function and performance, but also yes in profitability, then I have to think that people will pursue that that better, what's the old saying, the better mousetrap.


Paolo  24:26

It's going to take time; it's going to take talent and motivation. Do you think it might get worse before it gets better?


Dr. Paul Anastas  24:35

Well, I guess if we're really stubborn, we'll need more evidence. But I have to tell you, you know, I spent a lot of my career at the Environmental Protection Agency and in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. And I look at the studies and the reports that I was involved with, with writing them 20 years ago, 25 years ago, and it shocks me. What shocks me is today, is that everyone is shocked. We knew this, we saw this all coming. We knew that we needed to diversify our sources of energy. We knew that we need to develop the infrastructure for renewables. We knew that our feedstocks were vulnerable. We knew that our, our, our water and the climate change, consequences were coming. And we, quite frankly, know what's coming next. We know what's coming next. So, how anyone is shocked in 2022, that we're seeing what we're seeing, that's what amazes me. So, we know the path we're on heroes, the old saying goes, “If you're, if you don't change direction, you're going to wind up where you're heading.” And where we're heading isn't good. So, I strongly advise that we might want to change our direction. Now, one of the reasons that I am so thrilled with what you're doing is because this can only happen, this change in thinking can only happen with awareness. And quite frankly, with all of the successes in green chemistry, there is one big failure. And that failure is that 90% of people don't know what green chemistry is, don't know the power and the potential of green chemistry to change daily life, to change this direction. And so, unless we are able to capture the power of story, make this real to people's daily lives, make it real to their business, make it real to what they what they buy and consume, so that they can demand green chemistry, then that shift isn't going to take place fast enough. So, we have to get that new level of awareness that Einstein talked about. If I may, you know, I was reflecting that how much I liked science fiction when I was young. And when you think about science fiction in the 20th century, it was so hopeful. I mean, it was flying cars. It was jetpacks, it was exploring strange new worlds, right?


Paolo  27:24

Cyberpunk now it's pretty dark. Actually. 


Dr. Paul Anastas  27:27

When you look at science fiction, it's dark. It's apocalyptic, right? It is dystopian. And I asked myself, why is that? Is it really because things were so much better in the 20th Century? No. Yeah, the abject poverty over 100 million people died in war, there was a threat of nuclear annihilation. It was, it was a matter of perspective. It was a matter of saying, “Can the future be better than today?” You know, when I was young, the most hopeful sentence you could say is that, “anything is possible.” Today, the most terrifying sentence that you can utter is, “Anything is possible.” So, unless we change our perspective on recognizing that, yeah, we have some challenges. But tomorrow can be better than today. And we can design tomorrow to be better than today. That's going to decide what our future is going to look like.


Paolo  28:37

What more we can do, besides, you know, evolving education, and what can we do to communicate these concepts to the broader population and to everybody, how can we get this ingrained?


Dr. Paul Anastas  28:49

I think that that's the power of story, making this real to people. Having people understand that green chemistry is just simply better chemistry. It's more elegant chemistry.  You can't do elegant chemistry that is deadly. I mean, elegant and deadly, doesn't mix. Elegance and polluting don’t mix. Elegance and degrading and climate change don’t mix. So, if you want to do elegant chemistry, it really does have to include green chemistry.


Paolo  29:23

Absolutely. There's a single way we always end up our interviews and it's asking, you know, for a single piece of advice. Now, you know, you are in a very visible and powerful position. You've done wonderful work, and I'm sure there's a lot more you're doing what would be a single piece of advice you would give to a young scientist or a young chemist to start in their career.


Dr. Paul Anastas  29:47

Well, I guess. First, I'd probably start with saying, you're, you're living in a time that needs you. We have a lot of challenges to be solved. And that for some reason, these young chemists have been given the gift of understanding the manipulation of matter, that you can actually design matter at the atomic level, creating new molecules that the universe has never seen. And I call it a gift because, like a lot of people work hard, a lot of people, you know, put in the effort. And for some reason, this small sliver of the population was given this gift of understanding; being able, being capable, being given the opportunity to know how to design everything that we see touch and feel that we create in our society. And when you have a gift given to you like that, I'd suggest that there's a responsibility. With every gift comes responsibility. And so, right now, we live in a world where the material basis of our society and our economy is to a first approximation, toxic, depleting, and degrading of our ecosystems. What are their challenges? What are these young people's challenges? To make things helpful, rather than toxic. To make things renewable, rather than depleting. To make things restorative, rather than degrading our environment. So those, those are the challenges and how, how to go about it? Well, you know, I will tell you, I always say that if you want to really be innovative, look at the most absurd things you can find, and that's where you got to make the biggest impact, right? We have a lot of absurdity, we have absurdity of waste, we use the energy that we that we consume, the way that we still consume, you know, black rocks and black goo as our as our energy sources that are feedstock. So, there's a lot of absurdity, the fact that we feel the need to, to use highly reactive reagents. When nature, nature doesn't have clouds of chlorine and ponds of cyanide, and we'll use phosgene, to carry out transformations. It does it far more elegantly. And I'd say looking out my window, it does it at scale. So be a student of nature, and you won't go wrong. That's what I'd probably suggest and to really believe in yourself. Never doubt that an individual can make an impact.


Paolo  33:05

That was Paul Anastas, Professor in the practice of chemistry for the environment at Yale University, and the father of green chemistry. Thanks for joining us for this episode of Bringing Chemistry to Life and keep an ear out for more. If you enjoy this conversation, you're sure to enjoy Professor Anastas' new book, The Sustainability Scorecard: How to Implement and Profit from Unexpected Solutions. Look in the Episode Notes for more information, and also for a link to register for a free Bringing Chemistry to Life t-shirt. And please consider sharing this episode with a friend or colleague. This episode was produced by Sarah Briganti, Matt Ferris, and Matthew Stock.