Green Chemistry and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

By Lin Kaatz Chary, PhD, MPH, Executive Director,  Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network 

The cornerstone of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), a non-binding agreement between the U.S. and Canada (the Parties) which has been a pillar of Great Lakes chemicals policy on both sides of the border, has been the recognition that preventing the entry of hazardous and toxic substances into the Great Lakes is the most effective way of restoring the quality of the Great Lakes ecosystem and protecting it from further contamination and harm. Building on language originally written for the U.S. Clean Water Act in the 1970’s, the 1987 amended Agreement called for the “virtual elimination of toxic substances in toxic amounts” to be achieved through “zero discharge” of pollutants into the lakes. In addition, the Agreement stressed the need to develop substitutes and alternatives for existing toxic contaminants.
This emphasis on prevention provides a perfect interface for integrating the principles of Green Chemistry and Engineering (“GC&E”) into the GLWQA, and offers, for the first time in the Agreement’s history, an explicit practical strategy for achieving the goals of virtual elimination and zero discharge. One of the problems historically with the GLWQA has been the inability of various stakeholders to come to agreement on how to practically define zero discharge and virtual elimination, with many in the regulated community expressing the concern that neither was achievable.
The framework of green chemistry and green engineering make that argument far less relevant, because the emphasis is shifted to committing to continuous improvement in the development of substitutions and alternatives, and to a model based on prevention rather than management of chemical exposures. GC&E, in the words of a 2010 report by the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University, are “systems-based approaches that promote design for reduced hazard across the entire life cycle of chemicals, from design, manufacture, and use to end of life. They integrate knowledge from across chemistry, engineering, environmental science, and toxicology in order to reduce and, ideally, eliminate adverse impacts on health and the environment. GC&E provide a framework for a preventative approach based on innovation that improves technical performance, profits, and social benefit.”[1]
The Yale report goes on to characterize three key areas in which GC&E can be useful, which are quoted here in their entirety with slight modifications to enhance their relevance to the specific needs and process of the GLWQA.
1. Technical: The development and deployment of metrics, tools, education, knowledge sharing and communication to support the continuous development and implementation of GC&E-based innovations.
2. Policy: The use of regulatory authorities in a variety of ways, including (but not limited) to help remove market distortions that protect or favor more hazardous alternatives, to provide incentives for GC&E-based alternatives, and to engage in voluntary agreements and collaborations.
3. Financial: The leveraging of funds by the governments of both Parties to support green chemistry and engineering research, development, and implementation.[2]
 At a time when millions of tons of toxic pollutants continue to be released into the Great Lakes basin, the need for a more aggressive and more clearly defined strategy based on this model for addressing the problem is more important than ever. In its 2010 report Partners in Pollution 2, the Canadian group Pollution Watch, using the most recent data available (2007), reported that “285 million kg of pollutants . . . were released and transferred (excluding recycling) . . . into the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin” from reporting facilities.[3] While this actually represents a reduction in releases, this magnitude of chemical loading is still a significant challenge!
And, while both Parties agree that great strides have been made in reaching the “low hanging fruit” and achieving many of the goals set forth by the Binational Toxics Strategy in 1999, the statistics above demonstrate that there is still a long way to go. Better tools for analysis are being developed at EPA’s Sustainable Technology Division, such as their Waste Reduction Algorithm (“WAR”), and the Program to Assist the Replacement of Industrial Solvents (“PARIS”), and both of these are based on green chemistry and engineering principles, which is encouraging. But, will these tools be brought to bear in the new Agreement? Is there enough cross fertilization at EPA and Environment Canada to assure that they will be aware of these tools and formally integrate them into the Agreement? The binational negotiation team has made it clear that neither green chemistry nor green engineering are explicitly referenced in the new Agreement; what does this mean in terms of their recognition and knowledge about the kinds of resources available in their own agencies, let alone at outside institutions? As we will not see any language until after the Agreement has been signed and released to the public, the extent to which GC & E will be part of the new Agreement remains unknown.

[1] Matus, Kira MJ, Beach, Evan, Zimmerman, Julie B., Integrating Green Chemistry and Green Engineering into the Revitalization of the Toxics Substances Control Act, Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Yale University, New Haven, CT, June, 2010, p.3.
[2] Ibid, p. 4.
[3] Partners in Pollution 2, Pollution Watch, Toronto, CA, 2010,