This Organization Is Changing How Chemical Products Are Made Through Green Chemistry Education

From life-saving pharmaceutical drugs to high-performance materials, chemicals and chemical products are essential in providing society the products it requires to survive and thrive. But the creation and use of many chemical products is hazardous to people and the environment. In order to ensure a habitable future planet, the field of chemistry must adapt and find new ways to be sustainable as well as economical.

Beyond Benign is challenging educational institutions and the chemical industry at large to adopt green chemistry practices. Green Chemistry is defined as the design of chemical products that reduce the use or generation of hazardous substances. By supporting educators and students to teach and learn green chemistry and sustainable science, Beyond Benign is equipping the next generation of scientists and citizens with the tools required to design and select products that support human health and the environment.

Bioneers met with Beyond Benign Co-Founder Dr. Amy Cannon to discuss the organization’s progress and plans for the coming years.

Bioneers: Tell us a little bit about the beginnings of Beyond Benign.

Amy: Beyond Benign was founded in 2007 at a time when green chemistry was not widely accepted in chemistry education and research. It was an exception, rather than the rule. Having spent time in both industry and academia, my co-founder, John Warner, and I had a unique perspective on the state of the chemical enterprise. We saw an opportunity to address a clear gap in how educational institutions teach and train chemists: arming them with the knowledge and skills needed to address hazards and environmental impacts through the practice of their trade. The field of chemistry has a history of contributing to environmental impacts and human hazards. But it also has a central role in addressing these impacts through how we use and approach the design and implementation of chemicals and chemical products. This duality can be confusing but also empowering for chemists.


Dr. Amy Cannon

As a fundamental science, chemistry has tremendous power to address sustainability at the molecular level. This is something that needs to be included in the teaching and training of chemistry, which is why it’s the main focus of Beyond Benign: empowering educators to bring green chemistry into their teaching and practice to better train chemists with green chemistry skills.

Bioneers: Have you seen chemistry education morph throughout the past 10 years?

Amy: Yes, there has been a growing awareness of green chemistry and an expansion in the implementation of green chemistry in chemistry education. Although we would have liked to have seen more progress in the past 10 years, green chemistry is generally much more accepted by the academic community. For example, of the higher ed institutions that are involved with our Green Chemistry Commitment program, more than 75% have enacted significant changes at their institutions. 

While I do think we have had a part to play in the changes over the years, I think that one of the biggest motivators is seeing the results of green chemistry in practice. When chemists can see real results from implementing greener chemistry in the design and use of chemical products, they can see the tremendous power of chemistry to address sustainability challenges.

Bioneers: Beyond Benign is challenging educators and educational institutions to change and grow. How has that challenge been received?

Amy: Generally, educators are up for the challenge and see the value of bringing green chemistry into their teaching and practice. The pushback has mostly been from the barriers that come from enacting any type of curricular changes. When educators look to make changes to their curriculum, they are faced with resource constraints, and they also might see some resistance from peers or administrators, usually arising from misconceptions about green chemistry. Once educators and administrators see the benefits of including green chemistry in their teaching and practice – hazard reductions, cost savings, increased student interest – they then seek to do even more.

At Beyond Benign, we work to help educators overcome the real and perceived obstacles that go hand-in-hand with curricular changes. We provide resources, funding, and peer support that empowers educators to incorporate green chemistry in a way that works for their courses and institutions.

Bioneers: Why is working with chemical industry leaders such an important part of what Beyond Benign does?

Amy: The goal of green chemistry is to become the way that chemistry is practiced. Therefore, the chemical industry needs to have a key role in implementing and inventing greener processes and products and also advocating for and hiring a workforce that has the skills to implement these practices. The chemical industry creates the molecular building blocks of our global society. When green chemistry is implemented in the manufacturing and design of chemical products, the impacts are tremendous. For example, in an industrial setting, one chemical industry saw a 97% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions after switching to a biobased solvent in one of its manufacturing processes.  

However, it isn’t only chemical companies that can address sustainability goals by utilizing green chemistry. Companies across sectors are seeing the advantages of utilizing green chemistry for safer, healthier products. We’ve seen job postings from companies including Apple, Microsoft, Lululemon, and Pfizer, all looking for scientists with green chemistry knowledge and skills.

Bioneers: Which projects or initiatives are you most excited about looking ahead to the next few years?

Amy: Over the past few years, we have been working on expanding our reach to foster a global, diverse community of green chemistry educators and leaders. To support this community, we have embarked on creating a web-based platform that will house community green chemistry education resources, and also include interactive components that support networking, mentoring, and peer-to-peer interactions. The Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community (GCTLC) is anticipated to launch in August of this year, and we are really looking forward to launching the platform in partnership with the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute. We are hopeful that this platform will further catalyze the implementation of green chemistry globally.

Bioneers: What gives you hope in the work you’re doing?

Amy: I have met numerous students over the years who have brought such passion into their work. Many of them have also led initiatives to bring green chemistry to their departments and their communities. One example is the University of Toronto’s student-led group called the Green Chemistry Initiative. Over the years, they have built awareness within their own department and also served as inspiration for other institutions and student groups to get involved with green chemistry. It is these current and future leaders that will bring change to the chemical enterprise. Students are tremendously powerful change agents.

Bioneers: Can Bioneers readers get involved?

Amy: Yes, we would love readers to get involved. Advocating for green chemistry in schools and universities is always welcome. Beyond Benign hosts a suite of open-access resources available to educators from K-12 through college level. Readers are welcome to share these resources with educators to bring to their classrooms and laboratories. 

In addition, we have an ambitious goal of reaching 25% of graduating chemists (in the U.S. we graduate 22,000 chemists annually at all levels) by 2025 through the Green Chemistry Commitment. This goal includes engaging with Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) in the U.S. and beyond to ensure a more diverse and inclusive community. Our current signers represent just over 10% of graduating chemists. Readers are encouraged to share this program with university chemistry departments to help us reach a critical mass of graduating chemists trained with green chemistry skills.

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