Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.

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