How did green chemistry begin?

Sustainable chemistry: chemistry sees green

A good example of green chemistry? Josef Tremp, Head of the Industrial Chemicals Section at the FOEN, refers to the production of propylene oxide, a raw material for a long range of chemical products, such as polyurethane foams, solvents, medicines and paints. With an annual consumption of 9 million tons worldwide, propylene oxide is one of the most important intermediates in the industry. But the production has so far led to massive environmental pollution.

Now several companies have jointly developed a new method in which not only the raw materials are less toxic. At the same time, energy consumption can be reduced, "and there are no problematic by-products," says Tremp. The invention received the Presidential Green Chemistry Award in the USA.

Rethinking after Schweizerhalle

Josef Tremp is happy about such improvements. He himself witnessed the major fire in the chemicals warehouse in Schweizerhalle (BL) during his studies. "The polluted extinguishing water flowed into the Rhine and largely destroyed life in the river." The processing of these and other disasters had an effect. "A rethink began in politics and the chemical industry - due to pressure from the population, who were concerned about their health and the state of the environment." Topics such as contaminated sites, air pollution and drinking water quality now shaped the discussion in the media. This resulted in a real paradigm shift that finally led to the formulation of the basic principles of green or sustainable chemistry in the early 1990s.

Productivity tripled

What concrete results has this rethinking led to? “Die Umwelt” asked various companies what they were doing in the field of green chemistry. The selection was not made by chance, but was based on a preselection made by the Swiss Chemical Society (SCG) and the trade association Chemie Pharma Biotech, scienceindustries. 4 of the 6 companies asked responded. These include the DSM group, which is active in the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements and is based in the Netherlands and has 25,000 employees worldwide. For ThomasNetscher, who works in research and development at the Swiss site in Kaiseraugst (AG), environmentally friendly production methods are mandatory: "Anyone who wants to secure advantages in this competitive environment must behave sustainably with regard to the environment." DSM has set itself the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2025 as part of the “Brighter Living Solutions” product range - it ranges from specially coated solar panels to sustainable feed additives for agriculture.

Firmenich International AG, with 7000 employees, based in Geneva and number two worldwide in the field of flavors and fragrances, pursues similar goals. Maud Reiter, responsible for the development of new ingredients, describes the topic of sustainability as "part of our company DNA." Example: For the production of the recently developed perfume fragrance "Lilyflor", Firmenich succeeded in eliminating the use of environmentally hazardous solvents, improving the ratio between the amount of waste and the amount produced by 70 percent and at the same time increasing productivity by 270 percent.

Compostable plastic

The big players in the industry with over 100,000 employees are also active. Klaus Ruf, Managing Director of BASF Schweiz AG, describes sustainability as the “core of what we do”. In order to demonstrate the importance of the topic, BASF has developed an instrument to control all economic, ecological and social processes. At the Swiss location in Kaisten (AG) alone, a 9-person, interdisciplinary team checks all processes for opportunities for improvement. One of the results of these efforts: With “ecovio”, BASF has developed a bioplastic that is largely based on natural raw materials and is compostable.

Fabrice Gallou is one of the leading researchers at Novartis and describes sustainability as “one of the central pillars” of his work. Similar to BASF, Novartis has not established sustainability as a separate mainstay, but has made it a central component of all activities. This includes that the company has developed an internal label in order to be able to measure the environmental impact of all projects and processes. In order to make it clear that this commitment encompasses the entire area of ​​activity of the group and therefore every product, Novartis does not give any examples.

"Goal not yet achieved"

These are positive developments for FOEN chemicals specialist Josef Tremp, but the goals of sustainable chemistry have not yet been achieved. It is not enough to pay attention to energy efficiency as well as worker and environmental protection only in the extraction of raw materials and in production, as is the established standard today. “Sustainable chemistry starts with research. How a molecule is built up, what properties and biological effects it has, whether it is degradable in the sewage treatment plant or in the environment, are decisive prerequisites for all subsequent steps, ”says Josef Tremp. Accordingly, it is crucial that the universities already set the right accents in the training of future chemists. Only on the basis of a joint effort by business, politics and civil society can the legal and economic framework conditions be designed in such a way that sustainable chemistry has the best possible development opportunities.