Throwing back cappuccino and biscotti in a tiny café in London, Braungart is in an ebullient mood as he talks with C&EN. He has just come from advising a global cosmetics firm on sustainable raw material selection. Opportunities for making personal care products sustainable are legion, he says.
These days Braungart is also lifted by society’s growing sense of awareness that chemistry is part of the tool box for a better, more sustainable world. It wasn’t always so.
“Because of chemistry’s reputation after Bhopal, Seveso, and other disasters, we wiped out a generation of the best young chemistry students—they all became bankers,” Braungart says. But in his role as a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, he has seen a shift.
“The banking sector has been behaving so badly that it is now considered a worse profession to go into than the chemical industry,” Braungart says. “More of the brightest students are coming back to chemistry,” he says.
“For the younger generation, self-esteem is more important than money. Just look at today’s selfie culture: Kids are equally proud of what they are doing as making money. So, I am optimistic. The likelihood is that their adoption of C2C will be so much faster,” Braungart enthuses.
Worsening strain on the environment presents the perfect opportunity for young chemists to provide more sustainable approaches, he says. “And the good news is that chemistry in the past has been so pointless that what young chemists are doing will already be 10 times better for the environment because we were never considering the environment before. There are lots of opportunities for young scientists,” Braungart says."Chemistry in the past has been pointless" - gotcha. (Personally, I think there are plenty young people who want a lot of money. Shrug.)