Words come in and out of our lexicon and most recently we've been fixated on a few. Products are lining Target and Wal*Mart shelves boasting they are "green", "eco-friendly", "all-natural" and "sustainable". But what does this actually mean?
Some retailers are "green-washing" their products; research into these products is finds them to be without certification and promoting single issues, such as a recycling, without regard to other environmental issues [Eco-Friendly Products].
In our research of local sustainable efforts, we have been using the Environmental Protection Agency's [EPA] definitions for key words such as "green" and "sustainable".
The EPA’s definition of sustainability is based on the Brundtland Report from the World Commission on Environment and Development from 1987. The report “defined sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’” [Sustainability]. While this definition is very loose, allowing for discrepancies within certification, the EPA's definition for "green" is even wider.
On the EPA's website, 12 principles of green chemistry are listed; they are as follows:
- Prevent waste: Design chemical syntheses to prevent waste, leaving no waste to treat or clean up.
- Design safer chemicals and products: Design chemical products to be fully effective, yet have little or no toxicity.
- Design less hazardous chemical syntheses: Design syntheses to use and generate substances with little or no toxicity to humans and the environment.
- Use renewable feedstocks: Use raw materials and feedstocks that are renewable rather than depleting. Renewable feedstocks are often made from agricultural products or are the wastes of other processes; depleting feedstocks are made from fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, or coal) or are mined.
- Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents: Minimize waste by using catalytic reactions. Catalysts are used in small amounts and can carry out a single reaction many times. They are preferable to stoichiometric reagents, which are used in excess and work only once.
- Avoid chemical derivatives: Avoid using blocking or protecting groups or any temporary modifications if possible. Derivatives use additional reagents and generate waste.
- Maximize atom economy: Design syntheses so that the final product contains the maximum proportion of the starting materials. There should be few, if any, wasted atoms.
- Use safer solvents and reaction conditions: Avoid using solvents, separation agents, or other auxiliary chemicals. If these chemicals are necessary, use innocuous chemicals.
- Increase energy efficiency: Run chemical reactions at ambient temperature and pressure whenever possible.
- Design chemicals and products to degrade after use: Design chemical products to break down to innocuous substances after use so that they do not accumulate in the environment.
- Analyze in real time to prevent pollution: Include in-process real-time monitoring and control during syntheses to minimize or eliminate the formation of byproducts.
- Minimize the potential for accidents: Design chemicals and their forms (solid, liquid, or gas) to minimize the potential for chemical accidents including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment. [Green Chemistry]
Originally published by Paul Anastas and John Warner in their 1998 book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, the 12 principles read more like law passed by Congress rather than regulation used to implement and carry out laws [Understanding the Difference]. The EPA continues to use vague words such as “less”, “safer”, “increase” and “minimize” to structure United States national green issues.
We must remember that these definitions are still fluid in our lexicon and there is no set definition agreed upon by all since the words are relatively new. We must remember, also, that the EPA is part of the Executive Branch of the United States Government and therefore has the bias of the current administration. Their actions may not reflect what some agree with as sustainable or green.
"Understanding the Difference Between U.S. Laws and Regulations." Penn State Libraries. 12 Feb. 2008. Penn State. 15 Mar. 2008