Sustaining Sustainable Chemistry
Now that major sustainable chemistry legislation has been passed, advancing its transformative potential will require a bold, coordinated, and resourced whole-of-government approach.
In 2021, after nearly 17 years of effort, Congress enacted the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act as part of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The act has two main elements. One is the formation of an interagency committee to determine the baseline status of sustainable chemistry activities across the federal government and the US economy. This baseline will be used to measure the progress and effectiveness of activities envisioned under the act. The other element is organizing coordinated support for federal efforts in sustainable chemistry, including research and development, technology transfer, commercialization, and education and training. In short, the bill creates a federal government-wide effort that could enable the United States to lead globally in the innovation, commercialization, and adoption of safer, more sustainable chemicals and materials in the future.
Although the act had bipartisan support and the noncontroversial goal of stimulating research, innovation, manufacturing, jobs, and education, it was passed only with the help of Congressional champions and after numerous iterations and years of advocacy by a broad group of scientific organizations, environmental advocates, and business associations.
The bill’s history and context provide important lessons on what it takes to bring such an effort to legislative fruition. Its long route to passage offers a sense of the challenges to come in implementation. Done right, this initiative could bring about a new era of significantly safer, more sustainable chemicals freed of their association with fossil fuel feedstocks while catalyzing innovation and creating jobs and economic development opportunities in the United States. But the effort still requires Congress to appropriate funds and also needs leadership from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), an interagency committee, and support and coordination across multiple agencies.
As a former Congressional staffer who led efforts to advance the bill (Rubin Shen), a scientific association lobbyist who worked on the bill for most of its history (Maxwell), a former assistant administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who led the office that oversees EPA’s green chemistry efforts and its chemicals regulatory program (Jones), and the directors of two green chemistry organizations (Tickner and Kirchhoff), we believe that insights for the bold leadership that could unleash the potential of sustainable chemistry can be found in the history of the act itself, as well as in the precedents set by previous successful government-led initiatives.
Why sustainable chemistry?
The chemicals revolution of the 1950s and ’60s coincided with a period of unprecedented economic growth in the United States and elsewhere as discoveries spurred the development of new and improved materials, efficient agricultural processes, new industrial sectors, and innovative products designed to make daily life easier for a growing middle class. These innovations contributed to a widespread increase in quality of life—but these chemicals and materials were designed with only cost and performance in mind, without considering their environmental and health impacts.
In the 1960s, the impacts of chemicals on the environment began to be publicly acknowledged when marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson documented the impacts of the insecticide DDT and other pesticides on ecosystems and humans. Increasing scientific knowledge about chemicals and their impacts combined with highly publicized disasters—such as Love Canal in the late 1970s, the gas leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984, and the ozone hole—led to new laws regulating chemicals. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund), Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and, at a global level, Montreal Protocol all attempted to regulate chemicals emissions and manage risks from manufacture through disposal in a piecemeal fashion.
During the 1980s, a broad consensus emerged to change chemicals management strategy away from simply treating and controlling chemical hazards and waste toward better avoiding environmental and health impacts. Preventing pollution “at source” became a national priority with the 1990 Pollution Prevention Act. For many scientists and engineers, prevention at source meant developing approaches to eliminate hazards from the start, through molecular and process design. In the mid-1990s, the EPA established its Design for Environment program as well as the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards; in 1997, the EPA organized the first Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, and the Green Chemistry Institute was established. The field of green chemistry was further solidified in 1998 with the publication of Paul Anastas and John Warner’s seminal work, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice.
The concept, often described as green or sustainable chemistry, soon developed standardized definitions. Green chemistry has been defined as “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances,” with 12 principles of design intended to eliminate hazards from chemical production, use, and disposal. The term “sustainable chemistry” is often used in Europe to describe a parallel initiative that goes beyond molecular design to include the application and sustainability attributes of the product.
However, despite more than 20 years of effort, green and sustainable chemistry is still niche in both the academic chemistry community and the chemical industry, where carbon neutrality and resource use tend to dominate corporate discussions related to environmental and social governance. Barriers to green and sustainable chemistry innovation and commercialization include a lack of policy incentives and coordinated government leadership and investment, limited funding for targeted research, and few incentives for educators to teach green chemistry. More importantly, existing chemicals and processes are cheap, utilize capitalized technologies, and are tightly integrated into existing global supply chains, where cost and performance drive decisions.
As a result, the control of chemicals has taken a “whack-a-mole” approach that is slow, reactive, and resource inefficient, often leading to regrettable substitutions instead of innovative solutions. The World Health Organization estimates that health damage alone from chemical exposures results in more than 1.6 million lives and 45 million disability-adjusted life years lost globally each year, costing up to 10% of global GDP, according to the United Nations. Thus, despite the challenges, the impacts of problem chemistries on health as well as the potential cost savings of prevention provide a clear rationale for a national program on green and sustainable chemistry innovation.
Slow path to passage
The impetus for federal action began to coalesce in the late 1990s as green chemistry principles began to be adopted by industry—in particular, pharmaceutical companies. But the 17-year path from idea to law is a case study in the mechanics of legislating and a lesson on how ideas adapt to changing political circumstances; it also reveals some of the hurdles facing the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act’s future implementation.
Early in the 2000s, advocates for a green chemistry initiative settled on an approach now embodied in the National Nanotechnology Initiative: a broad federal interagency task force that would develop a plan and coordinate spending among related agencies to boost support for research and educational initiatives in green chemistry. Participating agencies were to be the National Science Foundation (NSF), EPA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE). To depoliticize the legislation, NSF was given the lead role and the most funding, thus guaranteeing a referral in the Senate to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, instead of the more politicized Committee on Environment and Public Works.
In March 2004, the House of Representatives held its first hearing on green chemistry, and the first iteration of the Green Chemistry Research and Development Act (H.R. 3970, 108th Congress) was introduced by Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) later that month. H.R. 3970 was marked up in early April and approved by voice vote following a spirited but collaborative debate. The primary topic of debate was the Democratic minority’s desire to add new funding, rather than using existing authorizations. The legislation, without new funding, passed the House of Representatives 402–14. Companion legislation was introduced in October in the Senate by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), but it did not move out of committee. In the 109th Congress (2005–2006), similar legislation was passed by voice vote in the House, but not advanced by the Senate as other legislative matters were prioritized.
After Democrats took control of both Houses in the 110th Congress (2007–2008), House sponsor Gingrey added new funding to the legislation, and it once again passed the House of Representatives by voice vote. However, the bill still failed to pass the Senate. In 2010, Gingrey added language authorizing NSF to create a green chemistry program as part of a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 111–358). During final negotiations, the Senate Commerce Committee asked to change the name of the program from “green” to “sustainable” in order to mollify conservatives’ concerns that “green” sounded too—well, green. This is why “sustainable chemistry” is used in the United States to describe federal green chemistry efforts.
It took the arrival of Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) in the Senate in 2010 to eventually pass the bill. Coons comes from a family of chemists, has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry himself, and expressed interest in this issue early on, meeting with the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) initially to scope the issue. In 2013, his office began meeting with industry, environmental, and academic stakeholders to gauge interest in reviving a comprehensive sustainable chemistry bill. Coons subsequently introduced the Sustainable ChemistryResearch and Development Act (S. 2879) in September 2014. The legislation was significantly modified to include direction to promote public-private partnerships and remove program authorizations, consistent with mandates from the Republican-led House to reduce government spending.
In 2015, Coons’s legislation was reintroduced and incorporated into the Senate version of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, S. 697), a comprehensive bill updating TSCA, but it became bogged down in conference committee negotiations and was subsequently dropped. In the next Congress (2017–2018), Lamar Smith (R-TX), the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, privately indicated his objection to the legislation and no efforts were made to pass the bill. During this time, with significant input from industry and professional groups, such as ACS, GC3, and others, the focus of the bill shifted from being simply a “science and research bill” to one focused on jobs and innovation, which could garner stronger bipartisan support. The bill was reintroduced by Coons in July 2018.
In February 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) completed a report finding that a national initiative on sustainable chemistry could better support collaboration across sectors and that the federal government has an important role to play in assessing the sustainability of chemical products and processes. The findings from the GAO report helped further strengthen the case for the legislation.
Following the return of Democratic control in the House in 2018, efforts to pass comprehensive sustainable chemistry legislation took a major step forward with both the introduction of a House companion to Coons’ bill (H.R. 2051), led by Representatives Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and John Moolenaar (R-MI). In addition, the House Science Committee prioritized the issue with an informational hearing in July 2019. The hearing included testimony from the GAO as well as leading champions of green chemistry, and the bill passed the House in December 2019.
Similar legislation (S. 999) was introduced by Senators Coons and Susan Collins (R-ME) and marked up by the Senate Commerce Committee. The growing support for the bill was a direct result of two years of significant effort by both ACS and GC3 to educate legislators about sustainable chemistry as a source of potential jobs, domestic manufacturing, and economic growth. For example, the industry-sponsored GC3 Sustainable Chemistry Alliance brought major retailers, brands, and large chemical companies to legislative offices. This approach was buttressed by a broad, supportive coalition consisting of organizations including the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense Fund, American Chemistry Council, and National Association of Manufacturers.
As a standalone bill, the legislation was unlikely to reach the Senate floor. However, in a strategic move, the legislation was added to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in both chambers. It became law when the NDAA was signed on January 1, 2021 (P.L. 116–283).
The path to passage of the act illustrates the need for both a strong external advocacy community and ardent champions in both chambers of Congress. Despite bipartisan support for sustainable chemistry in the House for almost two decades, it took the arrival of a dedicated Senate champion—and adding the act to the NDAA—to move the idea into law.
Leveraging current drivers of sustainable chemistry
The Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act passed in the context of a rapidly evolving landscape of changing consumer preferences, investor skittishness about costs from chemicals of concern, and global recognition of the importance of greener chemistry. In the meantime, Europe also began expanding its chemical regulations. Understanding all this will be key to successfully implementing the bill.
Today, sustainable chemistry matters both to industry and to climate and environmental justice priorities. Given Europe’s growing leadership in restricting chemicals of concern, driving chemicals that are safe and sustainable by design, ensuring nontoxic circular materials cycles, and achieving climate neutrality—goals envisioned in the European Union’s “Green Deal” proposals and Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability—sustainable chemistry is also critical for global competitiveness.
Numerous analyses reveal growing markets for safer, more sustainable chemicals and products in the United States. Research by New York University’s Stern School of Business demonstrates not only that products with certifications or claims of sustainable chemistry are growing market share faster than their counterparts, but also that consumers are willing to pay more for them. As a result, government programs recognizing and incentivizing green and sustainable chemistry, such as the EPA’s Safer Choice program and the BioPreferred program, managed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), are taking off in the marketplace.
Meanwhile, investors are beginning to see the risks inherent in investing in chemicals or chemical products of concern, as evidenced by $10 billion recently paid by pharmaceutical and agriculture company Bayer to settle lawsuits claiming cancer was caused by the widely used pesticide glyphosate. Advocacy pressure, including new scorecards and metrics to evaluate firms’ chemical footprints, is leading major retailers including Amazon and Walmart to publish new chemicals policies. And numerous states have enacted transparency requirements or restrictions on chemicals. For example, New York has prohibited 1,4-Dioxane above 1 part per billion in cleaning products starting in 2023. Washington has prohibited lead, cadmium, phthalates, and several flame retardants in children’s products. Massachusetts has banned 11 flame retardants in bedding, children’s products, carpeting, and window treatments. And regulations under California’s Safer Consumer Products program could have ripple effects throughout the economy.
In the coming decade, three high-priority environmental issues—climate change, the plastics crisis, and environmental justice—are likely to further accelerate interest in sustainable chemistry research and commercialization. Industrial chemicals not only pose toxicity challenges, but are also significant contributors to climate change and the plastics and waste problem. Further, there is strong evidence that the manufacturing processes and products of the chemical industry disproportionally impact communities of color and lower income communities. In this context, coupled with shifts in global markets, sustainable chemistry is poised to achieve an importance in the near future that may not be evident today.
Lessons learned in past government activities
Federal government-wide initiatives to drive research, development, and commercialization of new technologies date back to the Rubber Reserve Company, established in the early 1940s, which engaged companies, universities, and others to scale the supply of synthetic rubber for the war effort. Networks of national laboratories funded by USDA and DOE have been mobilized for decades to support development of new technologies and processes.
As described above, the inspiration for the earliest versions of green chemistry legislation was the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) established in 2000. However, during early discussions on the legislation, it became clear that the NNI’s large scale made it a poor model: the effort required for sustainable chemistry was thought to be smaller.
Instead, a better model might be single or multiagency initiatives sponsored directly by the White House, including the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and the Cancer Moonshot, both coordinated through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There was already significant research being done on both issues, and White House leadership was critical for driving more coordination within and across agencies. Other federal interagency initiatives on sustainability and environmental technologies include efforts around the bioeconomy, advanced manufacturing, and carbon neutrality and renewable energy.
In addition to those initiated and coordinated by the White House, individual agencies have led efforts to drive science and technology aimed at solving specific societal problems. In 2010–2011, the DOE Office of Science, led by chemist Patricia Dehmer, organized a process to identify the “grand challenges” to be addressed to make clean energy more affordable and more scalable. As a result, DOE created several Energy Frontier Research Centers to study these grand challenges, building a community of researchers and practitioners working to find scalable solutions.
Lastly, there is the foundation model, which engages external stakeholders to leverage public-private resources to build consortia and partnerships that advance research, innovation, and workforce development. The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), for example, manages relationships and financial support between the NIH and other government agencies, private industry, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions. Similar foundations exist for USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These various initiatives and models provide lessons for successful implementation of the Sustainable Chemistry R&D Act. First, the White House must give clear and consistent signals that sustainable chemistry is a key issue across the government. Mirroring the experience of the NNI, executive branch champions—in addition to existing legislative champions—will be needed to secure and coordinate funding and attention for the program. OSTP will need to engage sustainable chemistry programs across the federal government, including those created by previous legislation.
Second, chemistry underpins much of the economy, and a government-wide sustainable chemistry effort must demonstrate clear economic, health, safety, and environmental benefits from federal coordination and investment in sustainable chemistry. There is a role here for companies to show how sustainable chemistry addresses demonstrable marketplace and societal needs. Thus, the scale of the federal government effort must match the scale of the programmatic need, including mechanisms to streamline technology transfer and to create incentives to attract the private sector as a partner.
Third, having a clear process to focus resources on the most important areas of innovation and adoption will increase the likelihood of success. A combination of basic research; technology demonstration and piloting; establishment of collaborative networks between companies, researchers, and public entities; and private sector commercialization incentives will likely be needed for sustainable chemistry to be adopted in the marketplace.
The Manufacturing USA model provides one such approach. Although federal coordination will be needed to develop the national “blueprint” for sustainable chemistry, ensuring the right structure with adequate resources and leverage to drive research, innovation, and commercialization is also critical. Agencies such as DOE, USDA, and the Department of Defense may be best suited to lead implementation while others, such as EPA, NIH, and NSF, may be better suited to play supportive roles. Nonetheless, such coordination needs to ensure that the underlying reason for sustainable chemistry—reducing the harmful impacts of hazardous chemicals on health, safety, and environment—remains central to the approach.
External stakeholders, including industry, consumers, and advocates, will need easy ways to get involved and support the effort. FNIH demonstrates the value of leveraging both public and private sector funding to address key science challenges. The Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act’s passage was in part due to a diverse coalition of external stakeholders that valued national leadership in sustainable chemistry, and this coalition should be utilized in the act’s implementation.
One barrier that slows the adoption of green and sustainable chemistry is the difficulty of achieving the scale necessary to effectively compete in the marketplace. To satisfy current markets for incumbent chemistries requires high volumes, which often creates a challenge for small innovators who struggle with raising the capital needed to reach the necessary scale—even for proven sustainable chemistry technologies. A comprehensive sustainable chemistry federal strategy should include tax and location incentives, as well as federal purchasing support, to help companies through the “valley of death” on the way to commercial viability. Brands and retailers with niche product lines, as well as the federal government, can make modest purchases from innovative companies to enhance their ability to raise capital and scale production.
Finally, engaging federal agencies and external stakeholders will require more effective communication on the specific problems sustainable chemistry can solve. This was critical for the NNI, and it will be necessary to effectively communicate that sustainable chemistry can be brought to bear on complex problems including climate change, chemical safety, environmental justice, and economic competitiveness. The White House must keep a clear value proposition for sustainable chemistry in mind as it works to implement the act.
From concept to solution
Despite passage of the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act, sustainable chemistry is still not a national priority at the level of, say, climate action. Similarly, it is not a priority for investors. And much of the federal government’s focus on and resources for addressing chemicals to date has gone toward studying, regulating, or avoiding problem chemicals, such as PFAS or bisphenol A, rather than identifying innovative solutions in the first place.
The long history of the act’s passage demonstrates that strong champions, combined with a dedicated and diverse set of external advocates and a clear value proposition in terms of jobs, manufacturing, and environmental and health benefits, are necessary for federal efforts in sustainability innovation to thrive. A clear White House or agency champion and leadership—which has not existed for sustainable chemistry—will be needed, along with a compelling and ambitious implementation roadmap, similar to those for the green and digital economy currently being discussed in Europe. And the agencies and people involved must expand to include experts on technology application and economic instruments who can work to address barriers to commercialization and scale of sustainable chemistry.
Finally, the effort required to implement the act must be commensurate with its potential to accomplish multiple societal goals while creating a new framework for collaboration around sustainable innovation. Meeting this high mark will require adequate resources, connection to national priorities, linkage to regulatory efforts such as restrictions on chemicals of concern, and connection to the global market. Fully leveraging taxpayers’ investment will require broad stakeholder engagement and private sector investments as well as enduring leadership. In short, implementation of the act must create transformative change across the chemistry enterprise, moving sustainable chemistry from a scientific research concept to a critical player in solving major societal challenges.