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Op-ed: Building a safe and sustainable chemical enterprise

The European Union's new Chemical Strategy for Sustainability could be a model for the world. Here's how.

4 min read

Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-part series in which our special correspondent, Terry Collins, Ph.D., examines what qualities of leadership are essential for ensuring that the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability inspires trust in Europeans and the world that there can be a body of chemical products and processes we can safely live with.

The chemical enterprise is a collective term for all domains of the vast landscape of chemicals in our civilization. This includes the chemical industry, investors, academia, non-profits, trade associations, professional societies, governments (especially lawmakers and research and regulatory agencies), product formulators, retailers, philanthropies, the purchasing public and many more.

Each domain is riddled with its own sustainability problems. The European Union’s strategy for addressing unsustainability in its chemical enterprise, its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, is our civilization’s best chance to ensure that commercial chemicals deliver benefits without undermining health or the environment.

If the strategy succeeds, the EU’s chemical enterprise will stop obsessing about technological dazzle tied to large profits alone. It will shed the ugly image and the financial problems that follow when accountability arrives for ignoring the health and environmental impacts, as Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont and Chemours have experienced recently. European chemical production and use would become healthy for workers and for people generally, and Europe’s environment, markets, investors and security would all be improved. European universities would become institutions solving the real chemical problems of today and tomorrow. And together, these advances would create the premier chemical sustainability “how-to” manual the world so badly needs.

But this success depends on finding leaders endowed with the right insight and what I refer to as “sustainability dispositions,” which I will outline throughout this series.

In recent years, scientists have been learning how to quantify the health, environmental and fairness performances of chemicals. These measures remain largely ignored by the EU’s current chemical enterprise. Embracing this modern science and ethical thinking will allow Europe to determine which chemicals, both current and those to-be-developed, are safe and sustainable.

Change agents

european union chemicals strategy

"If the strategy succeeds, the EU’s chemical enterprise will stop obsessing about technological dazzle tied to large profits alone."

Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

There are two key questions for Europeans going forward with the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability:

  • How should the EU Commission actualize its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability so that health, environmental and fairness performances are integrated with technical and cost performances when making and using chemicals?
  • Who can be trusted with the challenges of directing and guiding the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability?

The good faith pursuit of these questions will require massive changes in how things currently operate. This, in turn, will require a multitude of sustainability-focused change agents in the industrial, academic, governmental, investment and other domains of the EU’s chemical enterprise.

Such change agents are important for moving chemicals education, investment, production, regulation and use from a money-first to a sustainability-first modus operandi. They are especially needed for building the new EU-identified field of Safe and Sustainable Chemistry as a key component of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. This new field will deliver the technical benefits that society needs out of commercial chemicals at acceptable costs while not injuring health, the environment and social and intergenerational fairness.

The most effective change agents will prioritize the most serious challenges.

After decades of reading to better teach my Carnegie Mellon University class entitled Chemistry and Sustainability, I’m convinced that everyday chemicals that elicit low dose adverse effects, meaning they injure living things at tiny doses, present the most serious challenges.

"The most effective change agents will prioritize the most serious challenges."

Although exposure to such chemicals at any life stage can elicit adverse effects, exposures during critical windows of development — which are abundant in the preconception, in utero, perinatal and pubertal stages of life — are particularly problematic because they can negatively impact entire remaining lifetimes by disrupting systems vital to being healthy.

Effectiveness in addressing endocrine-disrupting chemicals — which interfere with the proper functioning of hormones and have been mostly ignored by environmental and health regulators across the world — will be a key marker of competency of change agents who seek success for the EU’s strategy. Such chemicals are linked to a long list of health impacts including impacts on reproductive, nervous and immune systems function, some cancers, respiratory problems, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, with neurological deficits and learning disabilities and more.

Chemical sustainability leaders

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What crucial challenges will change agents — such as those seeking to build safe and sustainable chemistry to curtail endocrine-disrupting chemical injuries to people and wildlife — most need to confront and overcome?

This question reminds me of a passage from “The Prince” by Niccolò Machiavelli:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the innovator has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

Chemical sustainability challenges are first and foremost struggles with human character and ability, both individual and collective. Many actors in today’s enterprise — who are either clueless about sustainability or deliberately resisting advances such as the momentum away from endocrine-disrupting chemicals — will be outed by the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability actualization process and replaced with competent leaders.

And this brings me to a vital theme for re-thinking the chemical enterprise: What traits distinguish competence in chemical sustainability leaders?

I will explore this question over the next three parts of this series.

Read Part 2: “Sustainability dispositions:” Who’s up to the challenge of fighting for a healthy chemical enterprise?

About the author(s):

Terry Collins

Terry Collins is a Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon and founder of Sudoc.

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