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This is how to define sustainable chemicals
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This is how to define sustainable chemicals

Published on 07 Oct 2020

Sustainability has to go down as one of the most unclear terms of the 21st century. There’s no real agreement for what it actually means, yet it’s thrown around everywhere and slapped on every product being made these days. Still – even though it’s unclear what sustainability really is – the prevalent use of the word is a sign that people think it’s important.

So, in order to separate the true practitioners of sustainability from the posers who are only masquerading, a definition is needed. And when creating this definition, we need to be very cautious.

Why? Well, because it can potentially have huge implications.

As part of the wider sustainability definition, there’s a need to define what a sustainable chemical is.

In fact, there are several policy initiatives on the EU level currently in need of a definition for a sustainable chemical. And as all products are made of materials, which in turn are made from chemicals, I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to get this definition right.

“The definition should be based on three pillars – safety, circularity and the use of less energy”

The Circular Economy Action Plan, the Sustainable Products Directive, the Plastics Strategy, the Chemicals Strategy – all include chemicals at a fundamental level. Getting the definition wrong could have negative ripple effects in all these important frameworks going forward.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has begun to consider what a definition of a sustainable chemical might include. According to its director Björn Hansen, the definition should be based on three pillars – safety, circularity and the use of less energy. At ChemSec, we believe that this approach is commendable.

Safety is paramount. Circularity is necessary. Less energy is mandatory.

Let’s take a quick look at the three suggested keystones and the important considerations regarding them.

Safety – no substances of concern
As we have discussed previously, the connection between chemicals and sustainability tends to be overlooked when sustainability is discussed. It is, therefore, important to stress this connection again: chemicals with intrinsic hazardous properties – jargon for a toxic chemical – can never be considered safe, and are thus not sustainable. It is important to point out that by intrinsic hazardous properties, we mean the hazard of the chemical – not the risk, or exposure, or other fancy words. Only the hazard.

It’s quite simple, really. Would you, for example, call a chemical with cancer-causing properties sustainable?

The transition towards a circular economy is the way forward for a sustainable production and consumption. In a circular economy, reuse and recycling are the primary options for the end-of-life of products.

Materials that include hazardous chemicals (and many materials do, trust me) make circularity more difficult since a growing number of companies want to use recycled material but do not want to buy recycled materials containing hazardous chemicals.

“A foolproof way is to choose the right material for products already at the design stage”

And for contaminated material – i.e. containing hazardous chemicals – mechanical recycling is not sufficient in order to produce the clean material needed for a circular economy. The chemical industry wants everyone to believe that chemical recycling – a plastic recycling technology that’s supposed to separate the unwanted chemicals from the rest of the material in the recycling process – is the answer.

The potential of chemical recycling is still very much in doubt, both regarding the ability to accommodate the vast plethora of different plastic materials, but also regarding the energy-use, efficiency and the economic viability.

A much better and more foolproof way, both for circularity and energy consumption, is to choose the right material for products already at the design stage. By using this bit of common sense, we would have more clean material streams that are easier to turn into clean recycled material in an effective way and would not have to rely on an unfinished technology.

Less energy
The chemical industry is the second most energy-demanding industry in the EU. It is very important to find less energy-demanding production processes for the chemicals we need. In addition, energy must be saved in the recycling phase.

As mentioned above, different materials have different possible (or impossible) pathways towards recycling – of which some require much energy, some less. For example, several of the previously mentioned chemical recycling processes, such as pyrolysis, require vast amounts of energy to produce recycled material.

“We all know that the use of less energy is one of the most important issues for the future”

And we all know that the use of less energy is one of the most important issues for the future.

Unfortunately, many proposed solutions for the sustainability issues of today seem to revolve around treating symptoms rather curing the illness. It’s sort of like when you get prescribed a drug, and then another to treat the side effects of the first, and yet another to take care of the side effects of the second, and so on – when in all honesty you would most likely be better off if you threw the pills away and started eating better and exercising more.

In the same way, non-toxic chemistry would solve a number of challenges that we now are facing in a heartbeat. It would not only be very effective, but also safer, future-proofed and energy-saving.

In other words, it would be sustainable.

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