What is Sustainable Chemistry?

Sustainable chemistry is a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services. The concept of Sustainable Development was established at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. It has been further elaborated in 2002 at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Sustainable chemistry encompasses the design, manufacture and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes. Within the broad framework of sustainable development, government, academia and industry should strive to maximise resource efficiency through activities such as energy and non-renewable resource conservation, risk minimisation, pollution prevention, minimisation of waste at all stages of a product life-cycle and the development of products that are durable and can be reused and recycled. 

Sustainable chemistry is also a process that stimulates innovation across all sectors to design and discover new chemicals, production processes, and product stewardship practices that will provide increased performance and increased value while meeting the goals of protecting and enhancing human health and the environment.  

There are numerous efforts underway to reduce potential risks to human health and the environment from chemicals.. Substantial progress has been achieved in increasing energy efficiency of production processes and reducing associated pollution. At the same time, there are concerns about the potential of many chemicals to affect human health and the environment adversely.  There are also active international dialogues about key issues such as the use of renewable versus non-renewable resources, addressing pollution from industrial processes, the influence of the globalised economy on sustainable development, and improving the capacity to recycle both products and packaging at the end of their useful life. Sustainable chemistry is one of many disciples that is actively seeking to address these challenges through a process of scientific discovery and implementing economically and socially sustainable solutions.

In general, there is still lack of knowledge and awareness of Sustainable Chemistry. So far, efforts to make chemicals production and use more sustainable have focused on specific chemicals or processes. Historically, much of the focus has been on identifying substitutes. Today there is also active research into alternative technologies and chemical synthesis techniques that can address many issues simultaneously. There is no doubt that progress towards sustainable chemistry is an emerging trend, but it is also clear that there are many challenges ahead.

Sustainable Chemistry at OECD

The OECD’s work on Sustainable Chemistry was initiated in 1998. The Issue Team on Sustainable Chemistry was established in 1999 and  focused largely on developing guidance for “Establishing Research and Development  Programmes in Sustainable Chemistry”. In 2006, the Issue Team established a Sustainable Chemistry Network for information exchange, review of new developments and further elaboration of incentives for sustainable chemistry. In 2007, the Issue Team started to develop this Sustainable Chemistry Platform to serve as a networking resource and a place to disseminate information about workshops, training courses, and other capacity building opportunities..

In order to identify implementation areas and tools for Sustainable Chemistry, three Target Areas have been addressed at the OECD context:

  • Sustainable Chemicals;
  • Sustainable Products, which are relevant in all listed areas and
  • Sustainable Chemicals Production and Processing.

Top of page