Chemistry and the environment: help or hindrance?

Environmental issues such as climate change, water pollution and renewable energy make the news headlines and have become increasingly important in every day life. Many people perceive chemistry and the chemical industry as harmful to the environment. However, many new advances and scientific researches in the field of chemistry are helping us to develop more environment friendly materials and applications, while preserving the quality and the lifestyle we expect.

Over the years, the industry and wider public have become aware of the damaging effects of some past practices and the need to protect the environment. In the past, few were aware of the potentially negative effects our modern lifestyle might have on the environment, and rather saw only the positive potential for creating new, useful materials and products.

Research in biological sciences and chemistry has revealed that industrial processes in chemistry and petrochemistry could play a role in developing solutions to environmental problems such as climate change, waste management, recycling, energy efficiency – just to name a few. Without chemists, we might never have truly understood these problems. Profound changes have been made – and still are being made - to provide alternative solutions.

Industry has also developed a number of voluntary initiatives such as the ‘Responsible Care’ programme, to raise the standards in dealing with health and environment issues and establish safe and sustainable transport systems in full accordance with regulation. As part of its Responsible Care programme the industry publishes guidelines for the distribution and handling of chemical substances that require appropriate precautions. All these efforts combined with the new European chemicals legislation (called REACH) guarantees that chemistry is carried out in a safer and more environmentally friendly way.

In parallel, chemists and petrochemists are now researching new methods that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly while maintaining the development of our economy and our industry. Examples include:

  • Biofuels: transportation fuel derived from biomass. A wide range of biomass products such as sugar cane, rapeseed, corn, straw, wood, animal and agriculture residues and waste can be transformed into fuels for transport;
  • Bioplastics: production of plastic materials using natural sources such as plants, which are then biodegradable;
  • Insulation: enhanced insulating materials to enable more energy-efficient homes and buildings;
  • Lightweight plastic composites which help reduce cars and airplanes’ fuel consumption;
  • Fuel cells: when used to power cars or motorbikes, hydrogen fuel cells produce water vapour instead of exhaust gases;
  • New lighting technologies (such as Organic Light Emitting Diodes - OLEDS)  which produce more light with less electricity;
  • Wind turbines and solar panelling: both rely on materials produced by the chemical industry. The metal blades of wind turbines have largely been replaced by blades made of fibreglass-reinforced polyester to stand up to the severest weather.

Society tends to consider every man-made chemical as bad and everything natural as good. Just because something is natural does not automatically make it good for the health or the environment – or unsafe if it’s a man-made chemical. What looks more natural than burning wood in on open fire for instance? In reality, smoke from open burning can be harmful to both human health and the environment like other combustion processes.

Also, the whole life cycle of a product (from its creation through to its disposal) needs to be taken into account when considering its impact. Did you ever realise that the impact of cotton culture on the environment can be higher than making synthetic fibres such as polyester? The reason for this is that cotton requires the use of enormous quantities of water, fertilisers and pesticides.

Strengthening the science of chemistry through research and development is necessary to allow us maintaining a comfortable life in harmony with the environment and nature. It illustrates the greatest challenge of all disciplines of modern science, and most especially with those that pertain to the environment - the integration of technology, nature and human beings.