History of Green Chemistry

1960s

Rachel Carson wrote the mainstream, scientific book, Silent Spring in 1962. It outlined the devastation that certain chemicals had on local ecosystems. The book served as a wake-up call for the public and scientists alike, and inspired the modern environmental movement.

In 1969, Congress recognized the importance of the issue and passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law's goal was to "create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony," and called for a Presidential Council on Environmental Quality.

1970s

In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal regulatory agency devoted solely to protecting human health and the environment. The EPA's first major decision was to ban the use of DDT and other chemical pesticides.

Congress passed a series of regulatory laws to stem the environmental impact of pollution, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.

In the late 1970s, the discovery and publicity surrounding Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY scandalized the chemical industry. At this and other locations, thousands of barrels filled with chemical waste—which had been buried by chemical companies over the previous decades—rusted through, leaking toxic chemicals into the soil and contaminated groundwater.

1980s

Until the 1980s, the chemical industry and the EPA were focused mainly on pollution clean-up and obvious toxins, but a major paradigm shift began to occur among chemists. Scientists, who came of age during the decades of growing environmental awareness, began to research avenues of preventing pollution in the first place. Leaders in the industry and in government began international conversations addressing the problems and looking for preventative solutions.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international body of over 30 industrialized countries, held meetings through the 1980s addressing environmental concerns. They made a series of international recommendations which focused on a co-operative change in existing chemical processes and pollution prevention.

The Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics was established within the EPA in 1988 to facilitate these environmental goals.

1990s

This decade marked accelerated acceptance of pollution prevention and the establishment of green chemistry as a legitimate scientific field.

The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 marked a regulatory policy change from pollution control to pollution prevention as the most effective strategy for these environmental issues.

The Chemistry Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) at the time, Kenneth G. Hancock, made a point to publicly advocate this approach as an economically viable strategy. Chemists across the globe agreed that this could reverse the industrial tendency toward environmental deterioration.

In the early 1990s, the European Community's Chemistry Council published papers on the subject, including the influential work, "Chemistry for a Clean World." The first symposium based on these ideas, "Benign by Design: Alternative Synthetic Design for Pollution Prevention," was held in 1994 in Chicago and sponsored by the Division of Environmental Chemistry of the American Chemical Society.

Staff of the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins, coined the phrase "Green Chemistry" and sowed the seeds of productive collaboration between government, industry, and academia.

In 1995, the US EPA received support from President Bill Clinton to establish an annual awards program highlighting scientific innovations in academia and industry that advanced Green Chemistry.  This created the annual Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards.

The University of Massachusetts at Boston established the field's first Green Chemistry Ph.D. program in 1997.

In that same year, in cooperation with the EPA, Dr. Joe Breen, a retired 20-year staff member of the EPA and chemist, Dennis Hjeresen, co-founded the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) as an independent nonprofit with Mary Kirchoff as Assistant Director and a staff devoted to working exclusively to advancing green chemistry.

GCI established the Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in 1997, which has continued to convene annually.

Paul Anastas and John C. Warner co-authored the groundbreaking book, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice in 1998. The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry outlined within this work declared a philosophy that motivated academic and industrial scientists at the time and continues to guide the green chemistry movement.

2000s

In 2001, the Green Chemistry Institute became a part of the American Chemical Society, the largest professional scientific society and membership organization for chemists in the world.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was won for research in areas of chemistry that were largely seen as being green chemistry in both 2001 (Knowles, Noyori, Sharpless) and 2005 (Chauvin, Grubbs, Schrock). These Nobel Prizes helped solidify the importance of research in green chemistry and helped create a higher awareness among scientists that the future of chemistry should be greener.

Green chemistry groups, journals, and conferences launched all over the world. Examples include:

  • The Mediterranean Countries Network on Green Chemistry (MEGREC)
  • The Royal Society of Chemistry's (UK) journal Green Chemistry
  • The Green and Sustainable Chemistry Network in Japan (co-organizers of the Asian-Oceania Conference on Green and Sustainable Chemistry)
  • The Centre of Green Chemistry of Monash University in Australia

Links to more organizations, schools, and conferences are found throughout the current ACS GCI website.

Educational and research curriculums became available to many schools, kindergarten through post-graduate.

In 2005, the ACS GCI established an industrial roundtable for the Pharmaceutical industry, to catalyze and enable green and engineering into chemical businesses. Since then, two additional roundtables for a chemical manufacturing and a formulators roundtable have been established.

Many successful entrepreneurial companies, whose products are based on the application of green chemistry and engineering have been established, selling everything from 'green' glue to sustainable water processing solutions.

Today and the Future

After all of the research advancements in green chemistry and engineering, mainstream chemical businesses have not yet fully embraced the technology. Today, more than 98% of all organic chemicals are still derived from petroleum.

Green chemists and engineers are working to take their research and innovations out of the lab and into the board room through the creation of viable industrial products that can be embraced by today’s industry leaders.

The ACS Green Chemistry Institute® continues to be a clearing-house of information, connection, and research sharing through The Nexus Newsletter and Blog, the annual GC&E Conference, industrial roundtables, and a growing number of educational and research programs.