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EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Safer, More Sustainable Chemicals (Published March 2014)

Developing more sustainable chemical processes and improving chemical design.

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There is no doubt that chemicals help improve our lives and benefit the economy. Chemicals are in our medicines, the products we use to clean our homes, and in the tools we use every day. At the same time, chemicals, and processes used to make chemicals, can lead to human health and environmental concerns.

Using scientific and technological advances, EPA researchers are applying sustainability principles to figure out how to design novel, innovative, and green products that are made of safer substances and manufactured with more efficient, clean processes. This research will develop and implement more sustainable products and chemical processes.

One tool called Greenscope was developed through a six-year research effort and can be used to assess the sustainability of chemical manufacturing processes. Greenscope uses 139 indicators to assess chemical manufacturing processes on a “sustainability scale” from 0 to 100 percent sustainable. The indicators are categorized and measured in the areas of environment, efficiency (material), energy, and economics, also known as the “Four E’s.” Greenscope determines how well a chemical process makes use of mass and energy to manufacture a valuable product, how well it meets social and environmental needs, and how it maximizes economic benefits.

To test the Greenscope tool and provide guidance for how the tool can be used, EPA researchers assesed the manufacturing of biodiesel. A published case study shows how chemical manufacturing companies, decision makers, and other stakeholders can use Greenscope to evaluate the sustainability of different chemical processes. EPA recently started a research partnership with Proctor & Gamble and plans to work with the company to apply Greenscope to the environmental performance of a manufacturing facility within its supply chain management processes.

Another sustainability effort is the recent collaboration among EPA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). EPA and NSF provided grants to institutions to research the development of chemicals that are safer and more sustainable throughout their lifecycle. This research will facilitate safe design strategies and processes that consume less fresh water, generate less waste, and use less energy than current practices. These approaches will minimize hazards that arise not only from chemical structure and intended use, but also from their synthesis, production, consumption, reuse and disposal.