According to Andy Dicks, a Teaching Stream Professor at the University of Toronto, being green isn’t difficult. It’s being smart. Green chemistry is cheaper, principally from the perspective of environmental regulations around industry, as producing less unwanted material reduces the cost of waste management. Green chemistry also focuses on recycling chemicals, which reduces the cost of synthetic processes. Consequently, Dicks now sees some industries stating their hiring preference for candidates that have green chemistry knowledge.
“The basic principles of green chemistry lead to maximization of profit,” argues Dicks. “There’s creation of new jobs here with hiring of people with new skill sets and new knowledge. This demand didn’t exist 10 years ago. I feel that teaching students these principles is making them a lot more employable.”
Dicks’ introduction to green chemistry came in 2003 from a textbook by Ken Doxsee and Jim Hutchison from the University of Oregon: Green Organic Chemistry: Strategies, Tools, and Laboratory Experiments. He thinks of green chemistry as “sustainability at the molecular level.” Put another way, “It’s just chemistry done in a more responsible way.”
In addition to reducing costs, green chemistry is good environmental stewardship. Green chemistry contributes to almost all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identified by the United Nations in 2015. The SDGs include items such as clean water and sanitation, and responsible consumption and production.
Green chemistry has been part of the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry for over 15 years. “We began in the mid-2000s with a couple of people,” reflects Dicks. “It really started at a low-key level in an upper-year course by introducing a new laboratory experiment, saying ‘we can see some of the principles in this reaction by using a greener solvent or using a catalyst’.”
Over time, and in collaboration with others in the department, green chemistry was incorporated into more experiments, and later into other courses (reaching seven in total). Since then, it has contributed to an undergraduate specialist program within the department, called Synthetic and Catalytic Chemistry. Dicks emphasizes that there hasn’t been the need to create a separate course on green chemistry. Rather, green chemistry concepts weave their way through each of the courses, becoming a central feature of how students think about chemistry and their responsibilities as a chemist.
The culture of green chemistry at the University of Toronto expanded considerably when the graduate student Green Chemistry Initiative formed in 2012. “We now have a culture of green chemistry in the department, and people are identifying with it.” At the University of Toronto, some faculty research centres around green chemistry principles, such as the work of Dwight Seferos in eco-friendly batteries.
“The wheel does not need to be reinvented,” Dicks cautions. “You can if you want to, but you don’t have to. Plenty of textbooks are now bringing green chemistry in. Also, don’t compartmentalize it: green chemistry isn’t within one specific sub-discipline of the science.”
Whether you work in industry, government, or academia, if you are looking to learn more about green chemistry, Dicks recommends looking at Beyond Benign. This not-for-profit organization has resources for education, professional development, and more. Dicks’ recent article on green chemistry and systems-thinking also explores the departmental mindset and why the Department of Chemistry joined the Green Chemistry Commitment in 2016. This is a voluntary initiative designed to assist in the preparation of chemists whose skills are aligned with the needs of the planet and its inhabitants in the 21st century.
To connect with others engaged in green chemistry thinking, check out the Advances in Green Chemistry symposium, jointly organized by graduate students between the Organic, Environmental, and Inorganic Divisions at CCCE 2020 in Winnipeg.
Most people don’t think of companies prioritizing the planet over profits. Fortunately, green chemistry is one area where these two goals align. After chatting with Andy Dicks, I’m convinced: being green is being smart.
Brett McCollum is a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow, MRU Board of Governor’s Chair in Educational Leadership, and chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). His research focuses on effective uses of technology for chemistry education, student development of chemical language and representational competencies, and approaches to enhancing student engagement in research partnerships.