Paul Anastas Wins the 2021 Volvo Environment Prize
Known as the ‘father of green chemistry,’ Anastas, who directs the Yale School of the Environment’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, is recognized for revolutionizing the chemical industry with the principle that environmental hazards can be eliminated through thoughtful upfront design.
By Paige Stein
If you know what you’re looking for — examples of green chemistry are everywhere. They can be found on our walls where modern paints reduce toxic chemicals that are released when paint dries, and reduce toxins when paint is removed. They can be found in our medicine cabinets when processes used to make pharmaceutical products are streamlined to reduce the use of resources and release of waste. Or they may be found in your liquor cabinet, if you happen to have a bottle of Air Co., the world’s first-carbon negative vodka.
The field of green chemistry, the design of products and processes to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances, was founded by Paul Anastas, Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment, who was awarded the 2021 Volvo Environment Prize in recognition of the transformative impact of his work across numerous sectors and industries.
In summing the impact of Anastas’s body of work, Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute Amory Lovins (Volvo Prize laureate, 2007) says, “Generations both alive and yet unborn have him to thank for prodigious amounts of toxins not created, pollution not released, resources not wasted, and cleanup costs not incurred, as chemistry enriches our lives — now, thanks to him, far more thoughtfully and harmoniously with all life.”
Considered one of the world’s most respected environmental prizes, the Volvo Prize is awarded annually to people who have made outstanding scientific discoveries within the area of the environment and sustainable development. “Paul Anastas’s research is revolutionizing the chemical industry, from fundamental reaction methods to applications as diverse as processing foods and producing green hydrogen,” the Volvo Environment Prize Foundation noted when announcing their selection.
“Dr. Anastas has dedicated his life’s work to the pursuit of a healthier, more sustainable world. He pursues this goal through green chemistry — a field he founded and has passionately nurtured for the last three decades,” says Yale School of the Environment Dean Indy Burke. “The field rests on the principle that hazards are unintended consequences — that the carbon emissions, the pollution, the cancers, the degradation of ecosystems, and the other adverse and devastating environmental and human health effects that were once accepted as necessary byproducts of chemistry, can be eliminated through thoughtful upfront design.”
In fact, the link between the environment and public health has been a central theme that has run throughout Anastas’s career. Anastas holds joints appointments at YSE and the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH).
“The vital public health contribution made by Dr. Anastas’ work is to reduce environmental toxins and harms to humankind and ecosystems by making useful chemistry products safer,” says Yale School of Public Health Dean Dr. Sten Vermund. “We are immensely proud of Professor Anastas and the joint appointment with YSE that ties our complementary schools together for vital work to protect planet earth.”
Anastas was a PhD student in organic chemistry in the 1980s, when chemical tragedies such as Love Canal and looming environmental consequences such as the hole in the ozone layer were just starting to seep into the public consciousness. He recalls being amazed that “generally speaking, aside from measuring and analyzing the degree of pollution in our air, water, and land, chemists were not really thought to have a role in environmental protection.
“I found it absurd that the people that design, discover, and invent the new chemical products and processes would have no role,” he says. “That disconnect played a major role in wanting to change the role of chemistry and provide a powerful tool for protecting human health and the environment.”
Anastas would have the chance to create a paradigm shift around the role of chemistry, public, health and environmental protection sooner that anyone might have expected when he took a job at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) soon after finishing his PhD. It was there, while serving in the agency’s regulatory program, that he coined and defined the term “green chemistry.” He later co-authored the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry with John Warner — a framework for making a greener chemical, process, or product — which altered the face of the chemical industry and is studied in high schools, colleges, and graduate schools around the world.
The truly transformative nature of green chemistry, Anastas says, can be found in the idea that we can look to chemistry, not just to reduce environmental harm or waste, but to innovate at the point of design, actively solving environmental problems by studying and mimicking chemical processes that occur in water, air, terrestrial and living environments. The result, he notes, are products that are not only greener but innovative and attractive to consumers.
That is the case with Air Co. vodka. The company, co-founded by Stafford Sheehan, a former student in Anastas’s lab — with Anastas serving as science advisor — uses a process that was inspired by photosynthesis in plants to make vodka that has won awards for taste in a process that removes carbon from the atmosphere.
“Our long-term goal is to develop products in each category where we see an opportunity to disrupt the existing infrastructure. The more we produce, the more carbon dioxide we remove from the air we breathe. If our technology is applied to all relevant sectors (beyond the consumer industries), we have the potential to help mitigate 10% of annual global emissions,” says Air Co. Co-Founder and CEO Greg Constantine.
Anastas is no stranger to ambitious, large-scale thinking and change management. After spending a decade at EPA earlier in his career, he moved on to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where he established the Presidential Green Chemistry Awards. He then served as director of the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute which he had co-founded in 1997. In 2009, he was at Yale University, where he co-founded and served as director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, when President Obama asked him to return to the EPA to serve as assistant administrator and chief scientist. As administrator, Anastas led the EPA’s response to several national and international environmental crises and realigned the structure of the entire EPA research portfolio around the concepts of sustainability and innovation.
“During that time, EPA made great strides updating risk threats and standards associated with air and water pollution and advanced efforts to clean up waste sites,” says White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, who served with Anastas in the first Obama administration. “Each of these efforts benefitted from Paul’s expertise as well as his understanding of how to integrate sound science and green chemistry into federal, state and local decision-making as well as private sector practices and commitments.”
Anastas’s own research in green chemistry focuses on utilizing carbon dioxide and inventing renewable energy storage to address climate change, discovering new biomaterials to address plastics pollution, and designing safer chemicals to reduce the toxicity of consumer products.
Anastas and his team continue the “green revolution” — making green chemistry information more accessible through the green chemistry center at YSE. The center is currently working on a large new initiative to design safer chemicals and compounds through the development of a green framework of design — a toolbox that will benefit society and the economy of making the chemicals used every day fundamentally safer. The center also actively collaborates with industries to implement green chemistry in ways that are both financially and environmentally beneficial. Globally, it works with partners in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia, as well as through the Pan-Africa Green Chemistry Network. The center maintains an interactive website, where researchers in this area can exchange ideas.
“I’m grateful for the global spotlight that the Volvo Prize has put not just on my work, but rather on the work of the global community of green chemistry practitioners who are doing brilliant research to make the world more sustainable in the future,” Anastas says.