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Green or sustainable chemistry or both?

City University of Chemistry, Department of Biology and Chemistry, Kowloon, Hong Kong


The evolution of green chemistry started in response to numerous and severe environmental problems in the late 1980s and has grown to be a guiding concept since the end of 1990s. The definition and the twelve principles of green chemistry resulted in a paradigm shift from the control of the hazards approach to prevention, by lowering or preferentially eliminating the hazards all together. Sustainable development on the other hand was poorly defined in 1986, since the requisite to accurately predict the needs of future generations has been impossible to meet, due to the rapid and sometimes explosive rate of scientific and technical advances. It was recently proposed that sustainability should be based on resource and waste management, including all chemicals and energy used by society. In addition, it should be independent of economic and social aspects, as the stake holders could have vested interests, in order to make profits by businesses or to be elected/re-elected by politicians and political organizations, in unsustainable solutions. The catalytic conversion of cellulose in agricultural residues to gamma-valerolactone, via the formation of levulinic and formic acids, was evaluated with respect to the definition of sustainability and green chemistry – most of the components were green and sustainable.

Chemistry should be considered as “the central science” (1), especially as the chemistry of the human body has paramount importance to mankind. We all become concerned when our body starts to feel different from normal – once we observe even a small deviation, we immediately start to search for reasons. The impact of either physical or chemical causes will lead to a series of chemical reactions at the end of which we will notice the change. Although chemicals could have positive and negative health effects, the toxicity of chemicals was underestimated by the public for centuries. Again and again, this has been fuelled by the financial interests of their producers and distributors. The ecotoxicology of chemicals has received even less attention, until the negative environmental impact of DDT or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (2) was reported by Rachel Carson in her seminal work entitled “Silent Spring” in 1962 (3). The unexpected dynamic interactions between the growing population with food consumption, industrial production, the use of natural resources, and environmental damages, were suggested in the report entitled “The Limits to Growth”, funded by the Volkswag ...