Why Green Chemistry?

By Melanie Mastronardi, Chair for the GCI

In honour of the GCI’s upcoming Next Steps in Green Chemistry Research workshop, I wanted to share with you why I think it is so important that scientists learn about green chemistry and actually put the concepts into action.  Since chemistry is essentially responsible for everything we come into contact with, I believe that it is my responsibility as a chemist to make sure that the materials I produce are as benign and environmentally friendly as possible.  Learning about green chemistry has not only helped me make my research more sustainable, but it has also given me a new perspective on chemistry that has helped open new doors for my future career that I may not have found otherwise.  Through the GCI’s various initiatives, and in particular our upcoming workshop, we hope to not only educate chemists about green chemistry, but inspire them to put the concepts into action for the benefit of the environment, their research, and future careers.   But you don’t have to just take my word for it that learning about green chemistry is a good investment of your time, take a look at what some other members of our department had to say about the importance of green chemistry and how the GCI has helped shape this mentality at the University of Toronto:

“The GCI invites students to consider the potential of their research to change the environment for the better, whether through detecting risks or presenting better alternatives.  This is a tremendously important opportunity to generate long range benefits that can be widely appreciated.”  – Prof. Gilbert Walker, Associate Chair of Graduate Studies

“It’s important as scientists to keep in mind that we should work to minimize our impact on the environment and learning about green chemistry is one of the ways.  I have been able to implement some aspects of green chemistry into my own research, in particular removing transition metals in catalysis, and it has had a positive impact on my projects, leading them into a new, unique direction.” – Chris Caputo, PhD Student in Inorganic Chemistry and ChemClub President

“Chemistry undergraduates desperately need to hear about sustainability principles as part of their education… not just our program students, but all first-year life and physical scientists too. How else are they going to make the important greener decisions of the future?”  – Dr. Andy Dicks, Senior Lecturer

“To me, the GCI is the organization that is (and will hopefully continue to be) the catalyst for sustainable chain-reactions in our own research, in our Department and also in our daily lives.  Being a member of the GCI enables me to be part of the solution towards an environmentally friendly future by reducing waste and energy, by promoting sustainable practices and by developing novel green chemistry.”  – Nadine Borduas, PhD student in Environmental Chemistry and member of the GCI

“I think green chemistry is a natural progression of the need for environmentally sustainable chemical processes… I want to learn about green chemistry, so that I will not be left behind.”  – Kenny Chen, MSc student in Polymer and Materials Chemistry and member of the GCI

So whether you already know a lot about green chemistry, or this is the first time you are hearing about it, why not take the opportunity to learn more about how you can make your research and future more sustainable.  Full details about the Next Steps in Green Chemistry Research workshop, which is taking place May 21-23, 2014 at the University of Toronto, can be found on our website at www.chem.utoronto.ca/green/workshop.htm.  And make sure to register before this Friday, March 28th in order to take advantage of our $60 discounted early registration fee!


No Impact Man and Leading By Example

By Ian Mallov, Member-at-Large for the GCI


You may have heard this story in passing: a few years ago a guy in New York attempted to live for a year without making any impact on the environment.  The guy, writer and engineer Colin Beavan, documented his experience in a book, No Impact Man, which was made into a 2009 movie called – you guessed it – No Impact Man.

I’ll let the book’s first paragraph speak for itself: “For one year, my wife, baby daughter, and I, while residing in the middle of New York City, attempted to live without making any net impact on the environment.  Ultimately, this meant we did our best to create no trash (so no take-out food), cause no carbon dioxide emissions (so no driving or flying), pour no toxins in the water (so no laundry detergent), buy no produce from distant lands (so no New Zealand fruit).  Not to mention: no elevators, no subways, no products in packaging, no plastics, no air conditioning, no TV, no buying anything new…”

The rest of the book humourously details how Beavan and his family attempted this.  He didn’t go cold turkey: rather, he gradually replaced the products, services, and habits he was used to with alternatives.  And he didn’t begin as some kind of hyper-environmentally-conscious tree-hugger: among two of the first things he actually changed were to put his milk cartons into the recycling, and switch to reusable grocery bags.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already do these things and are two steps ahead of where he started.

Fast-forward to when they decided to unplug their fridge (responsible for a large percentage of household energy use).  Beavan and his family found the only thing they absolutely could not find another way to preserve, or buy fresh cheaply, daily, and in small portions, was milk.  Harnessing the power of phase-change thermodynamics, they discovered a solution used in Nigeria, where food spoils quickly in extreme heat and a much smaller percentage of the population owns a fridge.  They store their milk and vegetables in an earthenware pot with a lid, inside another, slightly larger earthenware pot.  Between the two a layer of wet sand is packed.  As the water slowly evaporates, the endothermic process draws heat from the surroundings, cooling the pot, which cools the milk and vegetables.  Because the wet sand is packed close and tight, the surface area is minimized and the evaporative process lasts several days.  Needless to say, sand need not be the medium – a damp towel will work.

This was on the extreme end of their journey – many other issues had already been addressed before they came to this.  Many of you will argue that changes in one person’s lifestyle make little material difference.  And you will be right.  But leading by example – being on the right side of the incremental changing of collective habits – you help to change the perceptions of normalcy among your friends and acquaintances.  For a humourous read and a few good ideas, check out No Impact Man.