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Didn’t have time to read Global Chemicals Outlook II? Here are 6 things that caught our attention

Chemicals and Climate

Didn’t have time to read Global Chemicals Outlook II? Here are 6 things that caught our attention

Published on 09 May 2019

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released its long-awaited report Global Chemicals Outlook II. The follow-up to the first report from 2013 offers, as the title suggests, a global overview of the issue of hazardous chemicals in the world and some projections of what the future may have in store.

The first report has been referred to over and over again in recent years, and this new edition will definitely be treated in the same way. But let’s be frank here, it is a brick of a report.

So in case you thought 722 pages was a bit long and didn’t have the time to read the whole thing, don’t worry. ChemSec has done it for you. Here are six interesting findings from the report that caught our attention.

1. Hazardous chemicals are harmful to our health and environment

This may not come as a shock to you, but it’s worth repeating over and over again. The release of hazardous chemicals affects our whole planet, it pollutes the air we breathe, the soil we grow our crops in, the water we drink and all living organisms – humans included – that come in contact with them. And on this topic the report doesn’t paint a pretty picture; the production and use of chemicals as well as their release and concentrations in the environment are all increasing, and negative effects include everything from collapsing ecosystems to human deaths.

2. The chemical industry continues to grow and Asia is taking over the market

The chemical industry is a behemoth, and it’s getting bigger. Between 2000 and 2017 the global chemical industry’s production capacity almost doubled – from 1.2 to 2.3 billion tonnes. And sales are following the same curve, expecting to almost double in ten years’ time. When pharmaceuticals are included in the equation, the chemical industry is the second largest manufacturing industry in the world.

One reason for this remarkable growth is spelled A-S-I-A. Historically, the world’s chemical industry has been based in Europe and North America, lately however, Asia has rapidly increased its market share. Today, Asia is the largest chemical producer and consumer, and China has the world’s largest chemical industry with more than one third of global sales. In ten years’ time, it is predicted that China alone will account for almost half of the global chemical market.

The chemical industry accounts for approximately ten percent of global energy demand, and almost a third of the total industrial energy demand in the world. This makes it the world’s largest industrial energy consumer. What is noteworthy is that this energy demand is highly concentrated; the manufacture of 26 basic chemical compounds (including nitric acid, ethylene and propylene) in Europe consumes three-quarters of the industry’s total energy use and is responsible for more than 90 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. And as if its energy consumption wasn’t enough, the chemical industry is also the third-largest industrial emitter of CO2 in the world.

3. Microplastics are literally everywhere – especially in the oceans

Global plastics production has increased exponentially over the last 70 years. In 1950, 1.5 million tonnes were produced; in 2017, global production reached almost 350 million tonnes. These plastics eventually end up in our environment – most notably the ocean – where they break down into microplastics.

The largest share of microplastic waste that ends up in the ocean comes from the breakdown of textiles during machine washing and the erosion of tyres on roadways, a smaller – but still significant – share comes from microbeads added to detergents and personal care products, and plastic debris floating in the ocean. These small microscopic particles are then scattered around the earth and found everywhere from the deepest ocean beds in the most remote regions to the table salt and tap water in your own home.

4. Fast fashion is speeding up textile production and e-waste is a big problem

Over the last 15 years, the global textiles sector has doubled in production, and the annual retail value is expected to increase by 30 percent between 2017 and 2030. A key driver for this is the phenomenon known as “fast fashion” – characterised by quick shifts in fashion styles, larger numbers of new collections, lower prices and garments being used fewer times. But a growing textile industry also means an increase in the amount of chemicals used in the production process – many of them hazardous to human health and the environment.

Consumer electronics is another market that is growing rapidly, with more than half of production taking place in China. For almost all electronic products, chemicals are essential components. Electronic products contain a number of harmful chemicals such as lead, mercury and flame retardants that carry the biggest risk of exposure during production and recycling. In 2016, 44.6 million tonnes of electronic waste – known as e-waste – were generated, of which 80 percent was informally scrapped to recover valuable materials (a practice common at e-waste dump sites in developing countries and said to be one of the world’s most hazardous occupations).

5. The market for nanomaterials is skyrocketing

The relatively new nanomaterials market is expanding rapidly. Nanomaterials are used in a wide array of applications such as environmental and consumer applications and electronics. Due to its antibacterial properties, nano silver is among the most popular nanomaterials used in the manufacture of consumer products, with uses in everything from electronics to textiles to personal care products.

The global nanotechnology market is projected to grow from 39.2 billion US dollars in 2016 to 90.5 billion US dollars by 2021. However, projections are filled with uncertainties because there are concerns about negative impacts on human health and the environment linked to nanomaterials.

6. Start-ups have an important role to play in the future

The sixth and final finding that caught our eyes in the Global Chemicals Outlook II report is something that ChemSec has highlighted in the past – the prediction that start-ups will have an important role to play in the future.

Start-up companies are a great source of innovation, and sustainable chemistry start-ups are no different. They develop new, potentially ground-breaking ideas and attempt to put their innovative solutions on the market. As sustainable chemistry gains more and more ground globally, breakthrough technologies from start-ups have a huge market potential and could possible transform the industry.

The report also states that while many large chemical companies have their own research departments, industry leaders are increasingly recognising the potential of start-ups and say that they expect “a much higher intensity of collaboration with start-ups than today”.