3 Ways Environmental Chemists are using a Circular Economy to Save our Planet

3 Ways Environmental Chemists are using a Circular Economy to Save our Planet
Faye Allison

3 Ways Environmental Chemists are using a Circular Economy to Save our Planet

Earth faces a growing shortage of resources for material manufacture, and rising levels of chemical toxicity threaten to change our planet as we know it.

Earth faces a growing shortage of resources for material manufacture, and rising levels of chemical toxicity threaten to change our planet as we know it.

Over the course of 2019 alone, 92 billion tonnes of materials were extracted and chemically processed, driving around half of all global CO2 emissions. 
Since 1950, the production of chemicals has increased 50-fold, with plastic production alone escalating by 79% between 2000 and 2015. In 2022, a team of international researchers discovered that humanity has stepped over a planetary boundary for chemical pollutants

Change is no longer an option, it’s an imperative. 

The circular economy offers an opportunity to transform industrial practice, preserving our planet, and yielding up to $4.5 trillion in economic benefits by 2030. However, only 8.6% of the industrial world is circular to date

Transforming our industries on a mass scale won’t happen without the right expertise, and green chemistry is our key to getting there. In this article, you’ll find out how green chemistry is enabling the safety, and sustainability of chemicals across time to secure our world’s future.

Read on to find out: 

  • What a ‘circular economy’ means
  • The pros and cons of a circular economy
  • 3 ways green chemistry and sustainability science are saving our planet with a circular economy

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy provides a system that preserves sustainability alongside economic expansion – benefitting businesses, society and the environment alike. Circular economies promote the elimination of waste, and the continual safe use of every natural resource, and aim to maximise the potential of every material.

Achieving a circular economy relies on chemicals. Materials, and resources are chemical in nature, meaning their creation and even degradation will involve chemical processes. Every material, from paper, batteries and plastics to pharmaceutical products, chemical experts play an essential role in ensuring the efficiency of manufacture, and the safety and circularity of the chemicals across their lifetime. 

The importance of green chemistry and sustainability science in a circular economy

Green chemistry and sustainability science aims to understand every stage of a chemical’s lifecycle; from formation, introduction into the environment, changes once introduced, the extent to which they enter organisms, and the impact of their degradation or existence in the environment.

This specialist knowledge base enables scientists to navigate the most effective route to achieving a safe, and efficient, circular economy.  

3 ways green chemistry and sustainability science power a circular economy

1. Driving innovation

Chemists focused on sustainable, greener methods of chemical production lead new technological, and theoretical innovations which power better, more efficient ways to achieve circular economies and solve sustainability challenges.

A number of ground-breaking innovations in sustainable chemical technologies are recognised every year through The United States' Environmental Protection Agency's Green Chemistry Challenge

2021 awardees, Bristol Myers-Squibb, developed a sustainable class of reagents (compounds which help create a chemical reaction) derived from discarded citrus peels, while Merck and Co developed a sustainable commercial manufacturing process for gefapixant citrate (medicine for chronic cough). Merck’s new process delivers a higher yield, and a six-fold decrease in raw material costs, while eradicating the need for highly hazardous chemicals. 
Sustainable innovations like these across chemistry help pave the way forward for circular economies, improving safety, yields and costs together.

2. Ensuring safety

In today’s global manufacturing world, products can contain hundreds of chemicals – many of which can have hazardous properties. 

Meanwhile, end-of-life chemical loss poses an additional issue that the whole industry must consider. 79% of plastic waste is disposed in landfills, or the environment, resulting in huge consequences for the natural world, and our own species. 

In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the loss of 1.6 million lives, and around 45 million disability-adjusted life years could be avoided with improved management and reduction of chemicals in the environment. 

Green chemists and sustainability scientists play a pivotal role when it comes to chemical safety. By contributing expertise in chemical loss across a product’s lifecycle, as well as toxicity and contamination. 

3. Undertaking research and analysis

Our understanding of the chemical world is ever expanding and evolving as we continue to change both the chemicals we use, and the ways in which we use them.

According to research from the UN, the industry faces critical data gaps across:

  • Chemical hazard data for commerce chemicals
  • Outdoor and indoor chemical releases
  • Exposures and concentrations in humans and the environment
  • The adverse impacts of chemicals

Collecting the data required to mend these knowledge gaps on a global scale is integral to establishing baselines, trends, emerging issues, and priorities. Crucially, green chemists and sustainability scientists conduct research to build on, and closely analyse macro evidence, to identify partnerships that support a circular economy.

Pros and cons of a circular economy

While circular economies have long been heralded as an essential solution, activating a circular economy has proven challenging for companies across the globe.

The cons

  • Secondary markets can break the loop - If a company’s output eludes their reach after use, they may struggle to successfully ‘close the loop’. This is particularly significant for companies where competitive secondary markets (groups of buyers looking to purchase unwanted chemicals for applications they still qualify for) exist for the product.
  • Economic barriers and access to financing – Financial hurdles, particularly during and post the pandemic can make it difficult for companies to commit to a circular model.
  • Repurposing isn’t always possible – Repurposing reclaimed material is not always efficient, cost-effective or even possible due to toxicity levels.

The pros

  • Regulations make it realistic - The UN have released a 2030 Agenda with improved legislative guidance to integrate chemical considerations into sector policies and government action.  
  • Reduced virgin material extraction - Reducing the extraction of virgin materials is both environmentally friendly, and often cost-efficient.
  • Reduced reliance on imports – A circular economy can improve supply agility and boost independence away from imported supplies.

Looking for opportunities in Green Chemistry or Sustainability?

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