There were a number of clear take-aways for me from the historic launch in May in Berlin of the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) and International Sustainable Chemistry network (ISCnet).
The first was the recognition that while there are many green and sustainable chemical initiatives around the globe doing excellent work, these are relatively small and have not reached their individual or collective potential. In this context, the addition of the ISC3 and ISCnet, with the strong backing and leadership from the German environment authorities, offers the prospect of a step change in the way these existing initiatives interact and the attention they receive. In short, the potential for taking sustainable chemistry to scale has been significantly enhanced.
The second was that the need for collective action to improve the way we design, use and dispose of chemicals (and the products in which they are used) has never been more pressing. While the many benefits of chemicals were undisputed, participants noted a number of alarming trends. These included raised background levels of persistent chemicals in the environment and health impacts (including costs), continued bulk production of controlled or even banned chemicals, excessive use of harmful chemicals, and poor recycling or waste disposal practices.
While participants noted that discussions in the SAICM framework would hopefully lead to the improved sound management of chemicals and waste, it was common ground that focused and determined parallel action was required to raise awareness about the need for a more ambitious and innovative approach to the way we think about and use chemicals. Sustainable development and the 2030 Agenda could not be achieved without more – and collective – effort by all stakeholders.
The third was that while the current market momentum would mean some changes would almost certainly take decades to effect, the concept of sustainable chemistry offered the prospect of an approach to chemistry where conceptual and technological innovations could deliver, within a near term, radical improvements in the reduction of harm and improvements in resource and energy efficiency. In other words, the mentality shift at the heart of the term ‘sustainable chemistry’ opened the door to a new era of sustainable industrialization and development. This was especially the case for emerging economies.
The last reflection relates to the mission, structure and work programme of the new bodies, where there was the expected high level of interest. Here, the German authorities were wise not to present ISC3 and ISCnet as an over-defined and developed concept. In keeping with their multi-sector and multi-stakeholder character, much has been left to be co-developed in the coming year.
In his final remarks, the new ISC3 Managing Director, Friedrich Barth, indicated that he would be reaching out to stakeholders for their further inputs on these and other issues in the coming months.
The wisdom of the ISC3 and ISCnet initiatives are that they are:
• the foundation stones of a new sustainable chemistry framework, not (yet) the framework itself;
• the blueprint of the conceptual shift, not the shift that’s needed; and
• the decision-finding process, not the decisions required.
Indeed, expectations management will be one of the central challenges ahead for ISC3 and ISCnet. On the one hand, to recognize that not everything can be changed quickly. On the other, to accept that much does need urgent change – and requires the necessary collective attention, resources and creativity.