Green Chemistry Principle #1: Prevention

By Melanie Mastronardi, Secretary for the GCI

1. Prevention: It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.

In this video for the 1st principle of green chemistry – Prevention – we wanted to show how habits in the lab can have a big impact on the waste that is created when it comes to preparing and running experiments. But to make it a bit more interesting – and delicious – we decided to host our video in the kitchen and turn it into a cooking competition. In the video, GCI members Cookie and Laura face off to see who can make a pasta dish the quickest to feed their hungry friends.

Once they start cooking, we see that Laura and Cookie have very different habits in preparing and cooking food (although for the record, we asked them each to do things a particular way for illustrative purposes, so their actions don’t necessarily represent their habits in real life). Laura takes the time to plan and measure carefully using only what is actually needed, while Cookie works as fast as he can even if that means he makes a few mistakes and messes along the way.

Just when it looks like Cookie will be the clear winner, we find out that the competition includes the time needed to clean everything used to make the pasta dish. Laura finishes cooking shortly after Cookie does, but has a much smaller mess to clean up and ends up being declared the winner of the challenge. This is a great example of the impact that preventing waste can have, which is important in the kitchen and the lab alike.

While this particular pasta example may not seem too tragic, by comparing it to chemical processes we can start to see the true importance of preventing waste from a green chemistry perspective:

“Use the minimum amount of material required to get the job done”

Laura took the time to find out exactly what amount of water was needed to cook 1 package of spaghetti, while Cookie used much more than he needed to – now imagine if this water was a toxic solvent in a chemistry experiment – Cookie would have much more waste that needs to be treated and disposed of than Laura, who made sure to use the minimum amount required.

“Plan ahead, to prevent ending up with excess materials that will end up going to waste”

Laura went over the recipe carefully and bought only what was needed to complete the recipe, leaving a lot fewer leftover ingredients compared to Cookie. She even found a use for the leftover wine that otherwise would have been considered as waste in this experiment! In real life, leftover food can be saved to use another time, but if it doesn’t get used before it goes bad it will end up in the garbage. In many cases, chemicals – like food – go bad over time when they are opened – so it is better to open only what is needed at the time or plan to make use of any excess reagents.

“Work safely to prevent accidents, which can be dangerous and create unnecessary waste”

Another important thing to note is that by rushing and not being careful in the kitchen and especially in a chemistry lab, accidents are much more likely to happen, which have the potential to be very dangerous and cause messes that are much harder to clean up. Cookie made a pretty big mess by accidentally pouring the cheese into his pan at the wrong time, which he then had to clean up later.

By planning ahead and working carefully and efficiently, Laura hardly left any mess to clean up, created a minimum amount of waste, and ended up winning the challenge and being able to serve her friends a delicious pasta dish first! So remember, in anything you do, always plan ahead and think about prevention!

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