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New Perspectives, Products, and Partnerships: How Sustainability Figures in Our Future

EPA's Dr. Alan Hecht discusses the stresses driving EPA and the world to implement sustainability across multiple sectors

Dr. Alan HechtScience Matters caught up with Dr. Alan Hecht, a leader in sustainability research and a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Hecht is working to promote sustainability in partnership with businesses, other federal agencies, EPA’s program offices and regions, tribes, and other organizations.

Science Matters (SM)A common element of both the public policy and business perspectives in EPA’s definition of sustainability is the intergenerational dimension, or ensuring that future generations can meet their needs. Could you say more about that?

Alan Hecht (AH):  I’d be glad to. In the environmental context, the current rate at which we’re depleting resources is creating stresses down the road. We’re spending more environmental resources than we’re earning, so we need to be more efficient and effective at how we spend and earn. Unfortunately, we don’t have to look many generations into the future to have the beginnings of serious environmental stress. The reality is that world population growth is projected to increase from 7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050. It is clear society is going to face huge problems because of this growth.

Another stressor is that ecosystems are less effective at providing “services” such as cleaning the air, water, and land. Water demands are increasing and many people do not have access to clean running water. Businesses are concerned about their access to resources, energy, rare earth minerals, and other materials. This suggests that we have to plan in a more sustainable way to address the economic, environmental, and climatic stresses of the next couple of decades.

SM:  How does EPA define sustainability from a research perspective?

AH:  The Agency’s 2007 Research Strategy for Sustainability was an excellent start, and the way EPA has moved since then focuses our research in a more systems-oriented, holistic way. We need to look at new innovations and the life cycle of products. Under the leadership of Dr. Paul Anastas, EPA’s Office of Research and Development now focuses on four major sustainability themes:  1) air, climate, and energy; 2) sustainable water; 3) healthy and sustainable communities; and 4) safe chemicals.

SM:  What are the major forces pushing the Agency and others toward sustainability?

AH:  The stresses we’ve discussed are pushing society to think differently. Population dynamics, the cost of energy, the scarcity of resources, deteriorating ecosystem services, declines in the condition of water infrastructure, and the fact that there are more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce are all driving us toward the need to understand more about sustainability, green chemistry, and other key topics.

SM: You said the business world is getting increasingly active in promoting sustainability. How can EPA research support that effort?

AH:  In the past several months, there has been an upsurge in interaction with the business community, which is now very interested in what EPA is doing regarding sustainability. Agency researchers and others have been meeting with business leaders to discuss product design, data management, and certification—our dialogue has been across the board.

In terms of promoting “green” products, a number of industries, including big companies like Wal-Mart and many others, have really moved aggressively. They are under increasing pressure to put out a product that is more competitive in the marketplace, and in this instance, that means “greener” products.

There are more than 435 different “green” labels and certifications that can be confusing to the consumer. EPA scientists have an important role to play here because defining what makes a product “green” gets into a number of research areas. What materials are used? What is the life cycle of the product? What’s “really green” and how do you certify it?

Industry is concerned that future resource demands may limit their access to the materials they need to make their products. They also are concerned about the possibility of negative public reactions to products that have been altered to be “green,” and are worried about their competitiveness. The pressure is on EPA to figure out how best to respond to these concerns, especially in the area of life cycle assessment (LCA). So you can see how EPA research is very important in this area, particularly in LCA.

Our challenges are getting research results out to the right people, coordination with other agencies, and issuing public policies that positively reinforce sustainable efforts rather than instill fear that extra regulations are coming.

SM:  With the business community and others, are EPA collaborations mostly scientist-to-scientist, or is the Agency building partnerships that reach beyond the technical community?

AH:  Our discussions with the business community extend well beyond the technical realm. While scientific exchanges are important, we are increasingly engaging in dialogues with high-level decision makers.  In addition, the EPA regions are keenly interested in sustainability. They approach us on health issues, infrastructure challenges, or how to design a sustainable community—topics that have technical, policy, and governance components.

We engage with tribal authorities, states, companies, EPA regions, and with the nitty-gritty of EPA program office work. Communities building infrastructure or new water treatment plants are asking us how they can do it sustainably. So we engage with them to help them understand that if they take a certain path, there will be significant increases in water and energy demands, but if they do it another way, there could be less impact on these ecosystem services. We have a number of tools, case studies, and models to help organizations at many levels consider these alternatives. 

SM:  In addition to the differences in approach needed to promote sustainability, how do you implement sustainability and what are some good examples of that?

AH:  Making sustainability operational is critical! Last November, we turned to the National Research Council to launch an effort for a report on this topic. We’ve asked them to address how to promote sustainability and make it more operational in a regulatory agency like EPA.

SM:  Any final thoughts?

AH:  In my lectures and speeches I describe my view about how EPA has moved from being seen as a policeman enforcing pollution laws, to a risk assessor evaluating hazards, and now to an innovator offering solutions. Again, Dr. Anastas is really moving us in this direction. One driver making this even more urgent is the current emphasis on promoting a “green economy” and “strategies for green growth,” which are the themes for the upcoming Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.  EPA’s core values are to protect human health and the environment. We will continue to go after people who violate protections and we will continue to put out risk reports. But during the next 10 years, the more we can offer sustainable solutions and innovative technologies, the more we will help society.

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