Bay State Seeds Green Chemistry

Think of chemistry and the environment and you might think of health hazards and toxic waste. Now, there's a new kind of chemistry that's trying to change that.

It's called "green chemistry", and it got its start in the Bay State, but it's making waves all the way to Washington, D.C. "The Green Chemistry Research and Development Act" has already been passed by the House. The Senate takes it up in January.

WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti visited John Warner, director of the Center for Green Chemistry at UMass Lowell, to find out more about the movement.


CHAKRABARTI: When John Warner looks around, he sees a marvelous world... brought to you by chemistry.

JOHN WARNER: "We make laptop computers, we make telephones, we make automobiles, we make all these things we love in our society. Unfortunately some of these things have bad side effects, they cause pollution."

So Warner wondered, why not teach chemists how to design molecules that are less hazardous... from the start?

JOHN WARNER: "Green Chemistry is trying to invent all of these same products and do everything society wants from us, but also having them be non-toxic and safe."

It's environmentalism in the lab. Sustainability at the level of molecular design.

Warner co-wrote the definitive book on green chemistry back in 1998 with Paul Anastas. They called it "The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry". And though the idea dates back to the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, their work propelled the field onto the world stage. At UMass-Boston, they started the nation's only Green Chemistry PhD program. There's also a Presidential Green Chemistry challenge award, and more than 30 international green chemistry institutes. Now, with so many chemicals originating from pricey petroleum, green chemistry is making the leap from laboratory to marketplace.

[Sound Effect of New York Stock Exchange Opening Bell]

[Tape of Business Reporter: "Pfizer expected to start the day higher, but the drug sector really seeing a big change..."]

For instance: at the pharmaceutical giant, Merck. Earlier this month, the FDA approved Januvia — Merck's new once-a-day pill for type two diabetes. It's expected to be a blockbuster drug. But it won't just make green for the company... it already is green. Joe Armstrong is on the process design team that used green chemistry to develop Januvia.

JOE ARMSTRONG: "The new chemistry that we invented to make this molecule removes 80 percent of the waste. The other thing we did is we increased the yield of that process by over 50 percent, and when you increase the yield on a process, that means you use less materials to make the same amount of goods, and therefore, it's going to be much more cost effective and really becomes a sustainable process."

Merck declined to disclose just how profitable its new green design could be. But it's probably a big number, according to retired Pfizer research executive, Berkeley Cue.

BERKELEY CUE: "If you have a drug on the market for eight, ten years, and you're saving ten to fifteen million dollars a year, that's as much as a hundred fifty million dollars of manufacturing cost reduction over the lifetime of the patent."

And Cue should know. Because he says Pfizer's savings were in the same ballpark when his team used green chemistry to revamp the popular antidepressant Zoloft in 2002.

There are local examples, too. Massachusetts-based M/A COM used green chemistry to create lead-free components for cell phones. That might give them an edge in the European Union, a major world market with strict environmental regulations.

David Lutes is undersecretary for policy at the Massachusetts Executive Office for Environmental Affairs. He says green is good for Bay State business.

DAVID LUTES: "Because the other point of green chemistry is to not make a product that is not competitive, it's to make a competitive product that's less toxic. So, if we can encourage these companies to do that, it puts them in a better place as they compete internationally."

But that begs the question: if green chemistry is good for your health, good for business, and good for the environment, what's taking so long? Why aren't we seeing fewer toxic chemicals out there?

Look to industry, some environmental activists say. They accuse globalized chemical companies of moving production to places like India or Mexico, instead of going green in the United States.

And, Rick Hind, national legislative director at the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign, believes industry is using green chemistry as marketing "greenwash".

RICK HIND: "Chemical giants are hiding 90 percent of their dirty, polluting business with this one percent green business. That's not only not fair or accurate, it's delaying the time in which the green business becomes their core."

But other activists see an upside. Paul Schramski is with the Boston-based Toxics Action Center. He thinks Green Chemistry could be a new way to partner with chemical companies, and push them faster down the road to sustainability.

PAUL SCHRAMSKI: "And I think we can do that. We'd be remiss to say that industry is going to do the best thing for everyone at all times, but we should use everything available to us to make our environment, our products safer."

Green chemistry pioneer John Warner couldn't agree more. Because it's right there — at the common ground between industry, science, economics and the environment — where he believes green chemistry will flourish.

JOHN WARNER: "What I want to do is I want to see someday that this just be chemistry, that obviously this is what we do. For some weird reason in our society we see toxicity and environmental impact as something else. It doesn't describe a material. It's something else. So, my big dream here is to have it not be something else, because who in their right mind would want to make a molecule that was hazardous?"

CHAKRABARTI: "So you want to revolutionize chemistry?"

WARNER: "Ah, yeah, a little bit."


But until green chemistry moves from the world of a few blockbuster drugs to all the products in our everyday lives, John Warner and other green chemists admit their little revolution still has a long way to go.

For W-B-U-R, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

This program aired on October 27, 2006. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



More from WBUR

Listen Live