Sustainability and the Chemical Enterprise

ACS Position Statement

Today’s society is faced with limited resources, expanding population, economic and social welfare disparities, increasing consumption and pollution, climate change, and degradation of human and ecosystem health. These challenges require innovations and policies to find and follow a sustainable path, allowing humanity “to meet current environmental and human health, economic, and societal needs without compromising the progress and success of future generations” (WCED and NRC reports).

The chemistry enterprise includes chemical and allied industries, their associated trade associations and professional societies, government laboratories, and the academic educational and research institutions that train the chemical workforce and advance scientific knowledge.

The chemistry enterprise has many roles in sustainability. It provides chemicals, materials, and technologies that improve the safe and efficient use of energy and natural resources and is responsible for delivering these in a way that protects human and environmental health. Chemistry—in labs, classrooms, and industry—is a central science for the development of sustainable technologies and innovations.

Chemical processes often require significant inputs of materials, water, and energy that are derived from limited resources.  These processes also are potential sources of emissions and waste materials. However, the high-volume supply chains within the chemical industry provide opportunities to leverage and magnify improvements in material sourcing, process efficiency, waste reduction, co-product utilization, and the use and end-use of products.

In addition to reduced energy use in manufacture, chemical industry products also can improve sustainability in downstream uses. For example, the use of foam insulation in industrial, commercial, and home settings enables energy savings and associated drops in greenhouse gas emissions.  A 2009 analysis found that every pound of CO2 emitted by chemical industry operations was offset by more than two pounds of CO2 emissions savings associated with the use the resulting products. The authors estimated that 2005 GHG emissions would have been 8-to-11 percent higher in a world without the chemical industry (ICCA).

A report by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2005 identified areas where focus would advance sustainability, including education; green and sustainable chemistry and engineering; life cycle assessment; toxicology; renewable fuels and chemical feedstocks; energy intensity of chemical processing; and separation, sequestration, and utilization of CO2. While there has been progress in the ensuing years, those identified needs still remain relevant today. In addition, there is a need to address the professional system in which chemists and engineers work. These systems of incentives, regulations, markets, grant cycles, educational background, and corporate, academic, and government structures and climates has tremendous influence on the sustainable solutions that chemists and engineers can provide. More recent NRC reports have continued to examine these sustainability issues and largely reinforce those previous chemical industry-specific findings.

A 2008 ACS workshop (Satterfield, et. al.) recommended a framework that would address non-technical challenges to sustainability within the chemistry enterprise. NRC has noted that sustainability issues are complex and inter-linked, demanding a kind of holistic thinking and problem solving. NRC also laid out specific recommendations for federal agencies, noting that effectively managing sustainability can add value and efficiency across the government (NRC 2011, NRC 2013).

Chemists and engineers are embracing sustainability challenges through innovation and are using a life-cycle perspective to minimize or eliminate potential environmental and health implications of their technologies. In schools, curricula are including more instruction on green chemistry, green engineering and life cycle thinking; researchers are advancing the science and tools needed; and academic facilities are teaching by example in reducing the environmental footprint of their campus operations. However, the professional system in which scientists and engineers operate could be improved to further incentivize and support these efforts.

ACS believes that support for research to promote sustainability, green chemistry, and green engineering, combined with incentives for the adoption of sustainable technologies and new regulatory strategies that promote sustainable products and processes, will be instrumental in meeting the challenges of protecting human health and the environment, meeting our societal and energy needs, enhancing national and homeland security, and strengthening the economy.

ACS Recommendations

Substantial additional progress in this path to sustainability requires the support of government. With this in mind, ACS calls on relevant government agencies and lawmakers to help advance sustainability within the chemistry enterprise as part of a vital, sustainable economy. To that end, tools that the government can use include

  • Grants for research into
    • environmentally beneficial and/or benign processes and technologies;
    • methods and knowledge to identify and manage socioeconomic, health, safety, and environmental tradeoffs in decision-making (NRC 2005);
    • understanding the implications chemicals have on sustainability.
  • Tax incentives and/or subsidies to
    • encourage private investment in research and development of sustainable technologies and processes; and
    • allow these technologies to compete in the market against established conventional alternatives.
  • Support research funding and facilitation of multi-stakeholder efforts to
    • develop and implement practical metrics and incentives for sustainability that incorporate life cycle and systems thinking as part of the decision-making process in the public and private sector;
    • develop and implement alternatives assessment methods for informed decision-making and avoid “regrettable substitutions;”
    • quantify and communicate the full life-cycle burdens (including hazards and exposures) and benefits of products and practices, including restorative or “net benefit” products to promote more sustainable choices;
    • develop products and processes that enable society to achieve science-based climate goals;
    • quantify and communicate health, environmental, and exposure information on chemicals and materials through complex supply chains.
  • Collaborative development of flexible, goal-oriented, technology-neutral incentives and/or regulations that reward the superior environmental performance of cleaner technologies.
  • Preferential government purchasing of products that minimize potential harm to human health and the environment while meeting performance and cost requirements.
  • Award programs, such as the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, that recognize businesses and academic researchers for adopting sustainability principles.
  • Support for sustainability throughout the educational experience (kindergarten to Ph.D.) to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers to address these complex challenges.

Anastas, P.T., and Warner, J.C., Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, 1998.


Anastas, P.T., and Zimmerman, J.B., “Design through the Twelve Principles of Green Engineering,” Env Sci & Tech. 37,5, 94A-101A, 2003.


ICCA, 209, “Innovations for Greenhouse Gas Reductions, a life cycle quantification of carbon abatement solutions enabled by the chemical industry,” 2009.


NRC, 1999, Our Common Journey: A transition toward Sustainability, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.


NRC, 2005, Sustainability in the Chemical Industry, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.


NRC, 2011, Sustainability and the U.S. EPA, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.


NRC, 2013, Sustainability for the Nation: Resource Connection and Governance Linkages, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.


NRC, 2014, Sustainability Concepts in Decision-Making: Tools and Approaches for the US Environmental Protection Agency, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.


Satterfield, M. Barclay, et al., “Overcoming Nontechnical Barriers to the Implementation of Sustainable Solutions in Industry,” Env Sci & Tech, 2009, 43 (12), 4221-4226.


WCED, 1987, Our Common Future (The “Brundtland” Report), World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.UN 2002.

Position in Brief

  • Defines the concept of sustainability in the context of the chemical enterprise.
  • Supports government incentives for sustainable technologies.

Legislative Outcomes

  • Inserted language boosting federal investment and coordination of sustainable chemistry research as part of S. 3084, American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.

Past Activities

Viewpoint Article: Overcoming Nontechnical Barriers to the Implementation of Sustainable Solutions in Industry
Environ. Sci. Technol.
, 2009, 43 (12), pp 4221–4226