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150 Years of Sustainability & the Contributions of Chemistry

American Chemistry Council 150 Years

The concepts of “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are increasingly becoming integrated into the international lexicon. Businesses, governments and NGOs are building sustainability into their priorities and action plans. But the concept of “sustainability” is nothing new.

One hundred-fifty years ago, individuals were undertaking what can be considered sustainable practices. For example, in the mid-1800s American farmers recycled crop nutrients back into the soil after each harvest by composting, plowing and burning, to help ensure that the soil would be fertile for the next season’s crops. Later on, people reused and repurposed everything from clothing and household appliances to automobiles, in an effort to both conserve resources and reduce household expenses.

While there have been in the past a variety of definitions, in 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 2015, the United Nations hosted on behalf of the Member States the largest crowdsourcing exercise ever undertaken, alongside a similarly broad expert dialogue to expand this definition to include specifics.  Over 10 million people participated in the process resulted in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 interlinked goals, unanimously adopted by all member states of the United Nations and designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” As manufacturers of innovative, life-enhancing products and technology, the chemical industry plays a key role in meeting these goals.

Chemical Industry Actions to Advance Sustainability

ACC members have been at the forefront of innovating new technologies and products that help solve the world’s most serious challenges. The chemical industry is the driver behind ground-breaking products that help make the world healthier, safer, more sustainable and more productive. Solar panels, wind turbines, home insulation, batteries, lightweight materials for auto and aircraft are all chemistry enabled and all can help advance sustainability.

And we know the residents and workers in the communities where we do business expect more.  We understand the critical importance of clean manufacturing, which includes minimizing negative environmental consequences while conserving energy and natural resources.

Our industry is working to be part of the solution in our communities by helping to safeguard the environment and innovating to make products and processes safer. So what does this mean in practice? As an industry, we’re working to:

  • Continue to reduce GHG emissions and energy use in our own operations by developing and deploying clean manufacturing technologies and adoption of emissions-reducing solutions.
  • Conserve and protect drinking water in the watersheds where our facilities are located and develop products and technologies to reduce water use.
  • Improve air quality in the communities where we operate, as well as tracking and publicly reporting member company progress in reducing air emissions.
  • Enhance product safety, improving our manufacturing processes and being more transparent about what we are doing well and where we can improve.
  • Pursue programs and technologies to recover, reuse and recycle plastics materials, to create a more circular economy and keep discarded plastics out of our environment.
  • Create a more diverse workforce to transform the chemical industry by creating a pipeline of skilled professionals that is more reflective of who we are as a country.

Though the global community faces challenges to achieve the SDGs, I am optimistic about the chemical industry’s journey to sustainability and the industry’s immense contributions to society. The men and women of the chemical industry have the tools, know-how and desire to expand the development and adoption of chemistry-based innovations that will enable us to meet these challenges head on, for the betterment of our industry and society, today and over the coming decades.

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About the Author

As Vice President of Sustainability and Responsible Care®, Mitch Toomey is responsible for leading the strategic implementation of ACC’s world-class EHS&S performance initiative and executing the industry’s commitment to sustainability – through innovation, collaboration, and technologies that enhance the safety and environmental impacts of ACC member products and operations.

American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council’s mission is to advocate for the people, policy, and products of chemistry that make the United States the global leader in innovation and manufacturing. To achieve this, we: Champion science-based policy solutions across all levels of government; Drive continuous performance improvement to protect employees and communities through Responsible Care®; Foster the development of sustainability practices throughout ACC member companies; and Communicate authentically with communities about challenges and solutions for a safer, healthier and more sustainable way of life. Our vision is a world made better by chemistry, where people live happier, healthier, and more prosperous lives, safely and sustainably—for generations to come.

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