Pursuit of sustainability drives innovation in the chemical industry

Pursuit of sustainability drives innovation in the chemical industry

The European chemical industry is embracing innovation to ensure sustainability. Moreover, through innovation the industry is providing measures to facilitate a sustainable society.

The chemical sector plays a significant role in the European economy, contributing 30% of the world’s total chemical production, employing 1.2 million people and generating €537 billion in sales in 2007.

The EU registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances (REACH) Regulation is at the centre of a shift towards more sustainable solutions. Aiming to protect human health and the environment, REACH makes companies responsible for registering information on the properties of their chemicals with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

Since coming into force in June 2007, REACH has prompted the chemical industry to increase its innovative capabilities and competitiveness. Moreover, the Regulation has enshrined the substitution principle within the industry’s regulations, ensuring the most dangerous chemicals will be replaced by more suitable alternatives.

By adopting measures to increase resource and energy efficiency, and developing improved production processes, the European chemical industry is lessening its overall environmental impact. In addition to addressing sustainability within the chemical industry, innovation and new technologies are enabling chemical companies to develop sustainable solutions for society as a whole.

As with all other sectors of society, the chemical industry has been forced to take stock of its environmental impact, and adopt measures to improve it, particularly as the industry accounts for 12% of total European energy demand.

A report by the High Level Group (HLG) on the competitiveness of the European chemical industry published in July 2009 indicated the sector must invest in eco-innovation to increase its competitiveness and ensure its sustainability. Furthermore, it called for the responsible use of natural resources and the overall improvement of energy efficiency.

The HLG, made up of representatives from the European Commission, Member States, industry and academia, capped 18 months of dialogue with 40 recommendations which aimed to help develop the sector's global competitiveness and boost its unrivalled innovative potential. The recommendations highlight the importance of innovation as essential for a sustainable and healthy European chemical industry.

Technology platform targets sustainability

Sustainability in the chemical industry has long been a key topic for discussion. SusChem – the technology platform for sustainable chemistry – was launched in 2004 by the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) and the European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio), and endorsed by the European Commission, to work on boosting environmental innovation in the chemical industry.

These actions can be viewed in two separate groups in terms of the measures being taken to increase sustainability: measures which increase sustainability within the industry, and those which are of benefit to the rest of society.

In terms of adopting innovative measures to increase sustainability within the industry, the European chemical sector has adopted behavioural changes to production processes, such as adjusting feedstock materials and introducing lifecycle thinking. Furthermore, through bodies such as SusChem and Cefic's long-range research initiative (LRI), innovative ideas have been developed.

One such example is the F3 Factory concept supported by SusChem. The F3 Factory is intended to represent the chemical factory of the future, which would not only have a lower environmental impact and higher energy efficiency, but would also require fewer materials. The combined result of such a design would potentially eliminate the environmental impact of new factories.

In addition, SusChem has also supported the development of integrated 'biofineries' that use biowaste to produce chemicals traditionally supplied by the petrochemical industry.

Outside the sector, developments facilitated by innovation in the chemical industry are increasing the sustainability of the wider community. Through the application of nanotechnologies, the sector is providing solutions to the problems of environmental remediation, environmental monitoring and resource efficiency.

Furthermore, SusChem has also launched the ‘Smart energy home’ initiative which incorporates chemical innovations – many based on nanotechnology – to create a residential building that is a net energy generator.

Call for improved environmental performance

Despite the progress made by the chemical industry in terms of helping increase sustainability both inside and outside the sector, the world's largest chemical firms have been criticised for not making adequate progress.

A report from the German-based environmental and social rating agency Oekom in October 2009 stated that the world's largest chemical companies have made 'scarcely any progress' in improving environmental performance in the last three years.

Taking factors such as energy and water consumption, resource use and environmental reporting into account, Oekom found that only 3 of the 24 major listed chemical companies obtained a 'prime' best-in-class status. Overall ratings were given on a scale from A+ to D-; the average rating across the industry was a C.

“Chemical corporations are still hesitant in their approach to the social and environmental challenges we face,” says Oekom research director Oliver Rüdel. “On climate protection, however, the companies do appear to be slowly rethinking their approach. However, while most companies do carry out risk analyse, problematic substances are still replaced by environmentally-friendly substitutes too seldom and too slowly.”

The Oekom report went on to say that the same could be said of the industries application of new technologies. In particular, nanotechnology was highlighted as warranting greater use due to its potential to offer increased sustainability through the production of environmentally-friendly products and processes.

While Oekom indicated that the chemical industry could do more in terms of improving their environmental impact, it did acknowledge the achievements made in terms of lower energy consumption in the sector.

In particular, it highlighted the fact that while production increased by 56% in the sector between 1990 and 2004, through more efficient energy consumption, the industry was able to halve CO2 emissions per unit of production of chemical product.

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