Why the Rise of Green Chemistry Matters

Chemicals used to manufacture consumer products often find their way into the environment. Aleksey Kurguzov/Shutterstock

Green chemistry is an emerging focus among manufacturing industries that minimizes pollution at a molecular level. The idea is that companies can adopt new scientific processes to minimize the toll their products take on the environment.

To bring the need for green chemistry home, consider your favorite pair of jeans. An estimated 2,500 gallons of water, along with a pound of chemicals and staggering amounts of energy went into making them, according to the American Chemical Society.

"Multiply that by 2 billion — the number of jeans produced worldwide every year — and you get a snapshot of an industry that contributes a hefty share of wastewater and greenhouse gases to the environment," the organization notes in a press release.

That simple example only involves the process of making jeans, a process that many people are aware of. But chemicals are a mainstay in just about every manufacturing process — from synthetic dyes in clothing that end up leaching into waterways to fertilizer chemicals that seep into soil.

Which is where green chemistry comes in. Here's how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines it:

"Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. Green chemistry applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, use, and ultimate disposal. Green chemistry is also known as sustainable chemistry."

It represents a much-needed turnaround for industries that have long relied on chemicals with dubious reputations. Think of it as "good" chemistry, the kind that seeks to repair the damage of processes that brought us acid rain, fertilizers in rivers and lakes, and a hole or two in the ozone layer.

"Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing," Jason Kirby, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, tells Newsweek. "They've been bleached, dyed, printed on, [and] scoured in chemical baths."

Some U.S. companies have already taken steps toward green production chemicals.

Going back to the example of jeans, Levi Strauss & Co. has "fully banned" the use of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in denim in favor of a safer, greener chemical. PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals" have been linked to a litany of ailments, including cancer. They're also increasingly turning up in drinking water.

The trouble is we don't know the full impact that chemicals still widely used today will have on our environment — although we know that landfills are piling higher than ever with discarded clothing, electronics, and toys.

People picking through a pile of trash in Malaysia.
In Malaysia, picking through open landfills for recyclable trash has become a way of life for poor families. Augustine Bin Jumat/Shutterstock.com

The amount of clothing waste alone is dizzying. As Newsweek reports, in the last 20 years, American have doubled that waste from 7 million to 14 million tons annually.

But what happens when those clothes start to break down?

"Despite considerable improvement over the last three decades in the control of toxic substances released to the environment during the production of chemicals, concern is growing about chemicals detected in the environment which are persistent, can bioaccumulate and/or are toxic," the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes on its website.

The organization is calling for more research into the "significant gaps in knowledge about the characteristics, effects and exposure patterns of chemicals on the market."

In addition, the organization is pushing for more scrutiny of the types and amounts of chemicals in consumer products — and how they eventually find their way into the natural world.

Green chemistry will have an important role to play in making products that aren't just safe for humans, but also the environment.