“It is about becoming greener than we were yesterday” – Interview with John Warner
November 30, 2020
John Warner is one of the co-founders of Green Chemistry. At the end of November, he spoke at BASF about “Inventing sustainable chemistry using nature's mechanisms”. The event was part of the “Talk Sustainability”series, in which experts discuss sustainability challenges with BASF employees. Sustainability News met John Warner before the event.
What is Green Chemistry all about?
Humans have started doing research in the field of chemistry around 300 years ago. Since then, chemistry has provided us with countless benefits. One example: Today, doctors have better medicine than ever before to treat their patients. This is, in large parts, thanks to chemical innovations. But in the last two decades we have come to realize that some of our technologies can also hurt our health and the environment. That is why we need to reevaluate chemistry to make sure that our next innovations do not have a negative impact on us and the environment. But this is only one criterion of Green Chemistry. Also, our goal has to be inventing technologies that have a better performance and are cheaper than conventional ones. Better performance, better cost and little or no impact on the environment – that’s Green Chemistry.
Is a 100% Green Chemistry even possible? And if so, where do we currently stand?
A 100% Green Chemistry is not possible. Because the harsh reality is that it is impossible for us humans to have zero impact on our environment. But by setting an ambitious goal, the direction which we need to take becomes clear. For me, Green Chemistry is more of a journey: Constantly trying to reduce our impact and to make the chemical industry and its technologies “greener” than it was yesterday. And this journey has just started. I believe most of the technologies that will help us to become greener have not been invented yet.
What is the relationship between Green Chemistry and a Circular Economy?
Circular Economy is the description of a desired future state. A state in which we reuse our products again and again and thereby minimize our waste. Green Chemistry is the process to achieve exactly this, because it provides researchers with the knowledge and skills to assess the impact of their innovations on humans and the environment over and over again and improve it.
Since BASF’s foundation in 1865, the company developed its integrated Verbund production system to save on raw materials, energy as well as emissions. Since 1994, sustainability is an integral part of our strategy. How can a chemical company like BASF contribute to Green Chemistry today?
For me, this is not a question about how BASF can, but how BASF must contribute - because around the world, the sustainability of products becomes increasingly important to consumers. As a supplier for customers in almost all industries, BASF is at the forefront to initiate change. Helping its customers to make their products greener can be a key success factor for BASF.
Digitization and Green Chemistry – a good fit?
Yes, definitely! For example, think about all the ideas that researchers in their labs have every day. Until a few years ago, it was not so easy to share these ideas with other researchers. Nowadays, researchers worldwide share ideas and knowledge within minutes. I think that, together with new methods like Big Data analysis or supercomputing, this can really drive us to find more Green Chemistry innovations in a shorter time.
You founded Green Chemistry together with Paul Anastas in the early 1990s. Today, Green Chemistry is mainstream. What is next, are you thinking about a Green Chemistry 2.0?
No, we still have a long way to go. Especially when it comes to educating our future chemists about Green Chemistry. Interestingly, the chemical industry has started to work with Green Chemistry a long time ago. Because as I said, it can supply products which are better for the environment and are also cheaper and more efficient. But universities have been slow to embrace Green Chemistry. So especially in the field of teaching Green Chemistry, we still have a lot of homework to do. This is why I started “Beyond Benign,” an organization that is dedicated to bringing Green Chemistry closer to educators and students.
About John Warner
John Warner, American chemist, is committed to creating a sustainable future by changing the way chemistry is practiced, learned, researched and used commercially. Warner is convinced that “chemistry is the solution, not the problem”. He has registered over 300 patents and is currently researching at Zymergen Corporation to develop and create commercial technologies inspired by nature and in harmony with the principles of Green Chemistry. He also heads the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies at the University of Bath.