Thomas Midgley Jr.’s two most notable chemical innovations have dramatically improved internal combustion engine and home refrigeration safety: leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. Few chemists have a more complicated legacy. On June 5th, United Nations World Environment Day is approaching, and I am pondering the complex legacy of chemistry as a whole and how we can ensure that future innovations will bring the greatest benefit with the least environmental impact.

I want a science-led, risk-based approach that puts citizen safety first, without unnecessarily stifling innovation

It is our shared responsibility as chemists to consider and actively manage the benefits, risks and effects of our innovations now and in the future. This should start with sustainable design, synthesis, manufacture, reuse, recycling and disposal: making the entire life cycle of a chemical product as safe and sustainable as possible. We also play a pivotal role in eliminating the effects of harmful chemicals that are already in the environment.

Another role is equally important: providing scientific expertise to those who regulate chemicals. A recent example would be polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a broad class of chemicals that have been used in consumer products for decades, with increasing evidence of bioaccumulation and health effects. Political approaches for PFAS range from total bans to approaches of “tort law as regulation”. Neither of these extremes is guided by science.

The RSC recently hosted a workshop on PFAS where leading experts in classification, remediation and education strategies agreed that action is long overdue. At least in the UK, scientists now have the opportunity to influence legislation. I want a science-led, risk-based approach that prioritizes citizen security without unnecessarily stifling innovation.

I advocate a four-pillar approach: education, regulation, innovation and the circular economy

A less discussed example would be polymers in liquid formulation (PLFs). These valuable ingredients improve the quality of paints, shampoos, cosmetics and countless other products. But almost all PLFs – 36 million tons worth $ 125 billion annually – are dumped or washed into the ocean. They are meant to be thrown away. The environmental impact is unknown.

The RSC has convened a group of leading companies including Unilever, Croda, Crown Paints, Scott Bader and Afton Chemical. These are only the first steps – solutions will only come about through concerted action with the support of science, business and civil society. Together, we need to develop new technologies and apply circular economy principles to collect PLFs, reuse them as new products and raw materials, and offer more bio-based and biodegradable alternatives.

These examples make it clear that governments and organizations at local, national and international levels need to work together when dealing with chemicals. On behalf of the RSC, I represent chemistry in discussions by the UK government and the United Nations on developing strategic approaches to international chemicals management, and advocate a four-pillar approach to shaping these strategies: education, regulation, innovation and the circular economy. Each of these four factors is critical to developing and implementing approaches to chemical management that prioritize the safety and confidence of citizens while allowing innovation to flourish.

Environmental awareness is part of our definition of excellence

As chemists, we are responsible for making all of this happen. The RSC recently updated the required attributes for its top professional award, Chartered Chemist, to include “Contributing to a More Sustainable Future”: environmental concerns are part of our definition of excellence. Chemists must play a leading role in fixing the chemical errors of the past; Design and Deploy New Technologies Today; and to contribute to the social and regulatory framework that enables this truly sustainable future.

In a century, when people write about your legacy, will it be an ode to sustainable design or a cautionary story of unintended consequences?

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