The Old & The New… Reflections on Sustainability at GSK (12/12/13)

Imagine this scene. November 1982. Top of the Pops is the nation’s favourite chart music TV programme, and we are a few weeks away from Renee and Renata taking the Christmas #1 spot. I’m in the Old Library in the University of Exeter. As an enthusiastic (fairly) and hardworking (definitely) Chemistry undergraduate, I’m poring over Government reports and academic papers looking for evidence of the impact of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the Earth’s ozone layer. And with a 2,000-word report in the bag, the conclusions couldn’t have been clearer. No data existed (at that time) revealing a correlation between the use of CFCs as a propellant in aerosol cans and ozone layer depletion.

HelenRoll on the clock. In fact, roll it on 31 years. It’s 12 December 2013. The X Factor, worryingly, is now the benchmark for the music young people (seem to) want. Sam, a prison warden, is likely to win, and will have the Christmas 2013 #1. I’m sat in a seminar room in the University of Nottingham. And me, I’m currently writing up a Business and Management PhD about the necessity for creativity in organisations. After the summer of 1983, I never got to use a Bunsen burner again, let alone connect a Liebig condenser to the lab’s water supply or breathe in some of the most dangerous (now banned) solvents.

And with me is my partner’s daughter, Isobel. Izzy is in Year 12 (sixth-form) of a Derbyshire school. And she wants to study Chemistry at university. And the University of Nottingham is on her short-list. So, what’s there not to like about a seminar, delivered by Dr Helen Sneddon, Head of GlaxoSmithKline’s Green Chemistry Performance Unit*. Izzy is also interested in the idea of “Sustainable Chemistry”. And, me? Well, there’s still a chemist deep down in there. It definitely comes out when I’m managing projects: the attention to detail, meticulous planning, zooming in to the detail and out to the big picture, with attention to timelines. And when I’m cooking too: careful preparation and selection of the right ingredients, as well as stirring the pot to avoid burning. And alcohol is usually not far away – though this time in the form of a glass of Pinot Noir, rather than ethanol.

Helen’s presentation is fascinating. Organised by the University’s Sustainability Research Network, I am greeted by Gabriela Gutierrez Huerter O. Gaby is a fellow Business School PhD student and one of the seminar’s organisers. Helen draws attention to the important role businesses (in her case, GSK) can play in reducing their carbon footprint. We are given an interesting insight into GSK’s sustainability plans and programmes, what is meant by the term ‘green chemistry’, and how industry is exploring ways to reduce waste and, at the same time, increase ‘yield’. Helen’s explanation of the solvent selection guide, to be used by chemists looking for more efficient ways of working, was really interesting. It also revealed a more modern insight into the world of chemistry as we move towards 2020 and beyond.

And now, a week later, I’m left reflecting on what I learned. About 15 years ago I wrote one of the UK’s first ‘green transport’ plans to support a major planning application. And I led London’s first Safer Routes to Schools programme, helping children and young people out of cars, and into more sustainable forms of transport. So the concept of sustainability is not new to me. Nevertheless, I was as enthralled at the presentation as Izzy was excited about the possibility of studying Chemistry at one of the UK’s leading universities. I wonder where Chemistry might be in another 31 years, in 2044? Maybe Izzy, and young people like her, will have shaped the pathway? Only time, and science, will tell…

Shaun Gordon, Doctoral Researcher,Nottingham Business School

December 2013

*On December 12th 2013 SRN ran a free event entitled  ‘Sustainability in the Pharmaceutical Industry: A GSK Perspective’ and was joined by guest speaker Dr Helen Sneddon, Head of Green Chemistry Performance UnitGlaxoSmithKline R&D Ltd. Click here for more information about the GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry at The University of Nottingham. 

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