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Universities open chemistry curriculums to ‘green’ design

October 5, 2009

In my search for the next step in my education, I came across an interesting article from earlier this year in the New York Times: Green chemistry’ movement sprouts in colleges, companies. The article talks about how some universities are beginning programs to address ‘green chemistry’. The University of Oregon is one that the article focuses on, noting that students can learn the principles of chemistry at almost any university but that toxicology needs to be factored into the curriculum. And, industry will respond.

photo via flickr

photo via flickr

After reading William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, I would have to agree that more and more industry will focus on safer design. As we learn more about the ramifications of chemical build up in our ecosystems, and consumers become more attuned to harmful compounds such as BPA, there will be a need for healthy, sustainable products. Products will be broken down into their respective chemical make-up and re-evaluated with the hope of eliminating toxic chemicals that are disruptive to human health and to the environment. Once companies are in this process, they will look to these ‘green chemists’ to come up with innovative products that accomplish the same goal, or perhaps improve it, while using non-disruptive chemicals.

During the Industrial Revolution, design accelerated so quickly that we couldn’t keep up with its effects. Now that we have learned how detrimental the burning of coal, the steam engine, the increase in production, expansion of railways and transportation systems, mining and all other products of the revolution are on the earth, we need another revolution. One that will sustain humans and the ecosystems we rely on. Chemistry can be a huge part of this transition, as we can learn to design without causing destruction. As the article states,

The University of Oregon — a leader in the movement — began an outreach program nine years ago that teaches professors nationwide about integrating green chemistry into a curriculum. Haack said that effort has driven up demand for green-chemistry courses nationwide and has led to changes in how students and faculty approach chemistry.

“We’ve seen subtle shifts,” Haack said in an interview. “Instead of students questioning the mechanics of something, now they’re thinking about chemistry as a tool for sustainability. They’re excited about the possibility of designing out hazards.”

I love the idea of “chemistry as a tool for sustainability”. Instead of thinking that industry is against ecosystems, we can and need to design for both.

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