Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, asks what kind of chemical legacy are we leaving for the future

Thomas Midgley Jr’s two most notable chemical innovations drastically improved the safety of the internal combustion engine and in-home refrigeration: leaded petrol and chlorofluorocarbons. Few chemists have a more complicated legacy. As we approach UN World Environment Day on 5 June, I am reflecting on the complicated legacy of chemistry as a whole, and on how we can make sure future innovations bring the greatest benefit for the least environmental harm.

I want to see a science-led, risk-based approach that prioritises citizens’ safety while not unduly stifling innovation

It’s our collective responsibility as chemists to consider and actively manage the benefits, risks and impacts of our innovations now and in the future. This should start with sustainable design, synthesis, manufacture, reuse, recycling and disposal: making the full lifecycle of a chemical product as harmless and sustainable as possible. We also have a central role to play in remediating the impact of harmful chemicals already in the environment.

There’s another role that is just as important: providing scientific expertise to those who regulate chemicals. A topical example would be polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a broad class of chemicals used for decades in consumer products with an increasing body of evidence showing bioaccumulation and health impacts. Policy approaches to PFAS range from outright bans to ‘tort law as regulation’ approaches. Neither of these extremes is led by science.

The RSC recently led a workshop on PFAS, in which leading experts in classification, remediation and education strategies agreed that action is long overdue. In the UK at least, scientists have an opportunity now to influence legislation. I want to see a science-led, risk-based approach that prioritises citizens’ safety while not unduly stifling innovation.

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

A less talked about example would be polymers in liquid formulation (PLFs). These valuable ingredients improve the qualities of paints, shampoos, cosmetics and countless other products. But almost all PLFs – 36 million tonnes, worth $125 billion, annually – are landfilled or washed into the sea. They are designed to be thrown away. The environmental impact is unknown.

The RSC convened a group of leading players including Unilever, Croda, Crown Paints, Scott Bader and Afton Chemical, and together we have initiated a taskforce to take action on this huge chemical sustainability challenge. These are just first steps – solutions will only come through concerted action, with support from academia, industry and civil society. Together, we must develop new technologies and apply circular economy principles to collect PLFs, reuse them as new products and raw materials, and offer further bio-based and biodegradable alternatives.

These examples highlight the need for governments and organisations, at local, national and international levels, to work together to manage chemicals. On behalf of the RSC I am a representative for chemistry at UK government and UN discussions about the development of strategic approaches to international chemicals management, and I advocate for a four-pillar approach to designing these strategies: education, regulation, innovation and circular economy. Each of these four factors is essential in designing and implementing approaches to chemicals management that prioritise citizen safety and trust while enabling innovation to flourish.

 environmental consideration is part of how we define excellence

We as chemists have a responsibility to make sure all of this happens. The RSC recently updated the required attributes for its highest professional award, Chartered Chemist, to include ‘contribute to a more sustainable future’: environmental consideration is part of how we define excellence. Chemists must play a leading role by remediating the chemical mistakes of the past; designing and delivering new technologies today; and contributing to the societal and regulatory frameworks that enable that truly sustainable future.

In a century’s time, when people are writing about your legacy, will it be an ode to sustainable design, or a cautionary tale about unintended consequences?