There is no question that science has come a long way. We live in an age where the most frequently used computer fits in the palm of our hand and those who’ve lost their ability to walk are able to walk again. We can decrease the appearance of time with a pat of face cream and have come to expect our gym clothes to dry within minutes. While we’ve made sweeping strides across the various facets of science, consideration of innovation’s repercussions has been neglected and the notion of sustainability has fallen by the wayside. Lauded chemist and inventor John Warner has made it his life’s mission to change that.
In 1991, Warner was working on patenting a new invention when his patent was halted by the Environmental Protection Agency due to questions about a new component in the invention. Warner soon discovered that the halt on his patent was because he had accidentally discovered an unprecedented way to create a product that was better for the environment. This realization sparked the inspiration for Warner’s book “Green Chemistry.” Written with Paul Anastas, then a science advisor for the E.P.A., the book pioneered a new avenue of chemistry study with 12 principles that took a pragmatic approach to non-toxic product creation. Green Chemistry showed that creating non-toxic products actually allowed products to be faster to market and more cost effective.
“It’s a very simple book that anybody could have written,” remarks Warner. “It happened to be at the right time and the right place.” The book has since been translated into many languages and has become highly regarded within the science community. Warner has become somewhat of a celebrity in the science world, visiting over 20 countries to speak with presidents and diplomats about integrating the principles of Green Chemistry.
Warner was working as senior research scientist at Polaroid Corp., when he tragically lost his two-year-old son. His son had been born with a birth defect and his death was due to a failed liver transplant. “On the night of his funeral, I started at the ceiling and asked myself, ‘I wonder if something I did as a chemist caused my son’s birth defect.'”
At the time, Warner was one of the most prolific synthetic industrial chemists in the world. And while he had dozens of patents, awards and products on the market to his name, he still wasn’t able to answer that question.
Eventually, Warner found the bigger issue within his doubts. Upon contemplating the shortcomings of the chemistry industry, he realized that in all of his eight years of higher education, he had never had a class on toxicology. He looked into the landscape of chemistry education and discovered that not one university requires chemistry students to have knowledge of toxicity or environmental impact. “The field of chemistry has evolved, but that’s not part of who we are,” says Warner. “To be a chemist, you don’t need to know about the potential harm of what your chemistry might do.”
The lack of education pertaining to the repercussions of invention was a disturbing reality to face for Warner. “Anyone can make a molecule. They could be potentially making the most potent carcinogen in history and they have no clue how to know that or not. “
In an attempt to fill this particular void in science, Warner entered academia as a professor of chemistry, chair of chemistry, and director of bio-chemistry at University of Massachusetts, starting the first PhD program in Green Chemistry at a university. “This is a fundamental training issue,” says Warner. “It should be that no chemist should graduate without some understanding of the potential harm of chemistry.”
Eleven years after starting University of Massachusetts’ PhD program in Green Chemistry, almost every university in the country had one or two professors that were trying to introduce the topic into their university’s curriculum, creating access for future chemists who hope to create a more sustainable future. Warner believes that the solution to sustainability must begin in the classroom. “The problem is that better alternatives to materials haven’t been invented yet,” says Warner.
If students aren’t taught the difference between sustainable and not sustainable, there is no criteria for them to invent non-toxic materials.
Warner eventually left his position at University of Massachusetts and created the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, where for the last 10 years, he has been working with approximately 80 companies inventing technology that is sustainable, has no impact on the environment and is cost effective. “I’ve been trying to show by example that this can be done and it can be done in a very cost effective manner. My successes are not in spite of Green Chemistry. It’s because of it.”
Warner’s Green Chemistry principles have been embraced by big business mostly because of his pragmatic approach to sustainability. “What people don’t fully appreciate is that when you manufacture something, you have to pay to rid waste,” explains Warner. Many times the cost of waste removal exceeds the cost of the raw materials used to make the product, which creates a vested interest by businesses in sustainable practices. “It’s not a choice. People aren’t choosing not to do better things. They just simply don’t exist.”
Even with his work through he Warner Babcock Institute, Warner has not abandoned his dedication to Green Chemistry education. In partnership with his wife wife, Amy Cannon, Warner began non-profit organization Beyond Benign. The organization works to increase STEM education in K-12 classes as well as encourage universities to integrate Green Chemistry into their curriculums through the Green Chemistry Commitment. This commitment asks university chemistry department chairs to sign a commitment that, while they may not have the resources and the faculty now, they will work to create a curriculum to ensure every graduate of chemistry has training in Green Chemistry. “That is my life’s mission,” shares Warner. “The day that every university requires this to be part of the education, I can retire because mission accomplished.”
The Green Chemistry Commitment currently has almost 50 signees including signatures from departments at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Minnesota and University of Toronto. “That’s my ray of hope,” says Warner. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s hundreds of schools to go, but in my opinion this is something that will ultimately happen.”
For Warner it’s simple, “The desire and the benefit is absolutely clear, but the capacity to do it is absent because universities aren’t training scientists. How often do we have a huge massive problem that actually has a somewhat simple solution?”
While industry has already embraced Warner’s science, he continues to work to require education of sustainability at university level. “It is impossible for society to succeed if we don’t invent the better technologies and the fundamental textbook science of that is called Green Chemistry.”