Facing Pressure, Chemical Industry Grapples With Sustainability Push

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The chemical industry is facing growing pressure from consumers and shareholders to adopt more sustainable practices, including producing less-toxic chemicals and cutting greenhouse gases (GHG), though industry officials told a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel they face significant challenges achieving these goals.

“Consumers are expecting better,” Dr. Bob Maughon, executive vice president for technology and innovation at SABIC told the NAS’ Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology during an August 19 webinar.

Among the changes he said industry is looking toward are phase-outs of substances of concern; designing polymers like plastics for recyclability, or making them biologically-based; and reducing GHG emissions.

But he said the industry is facing difficulties in making the large-scale changes needed to advance such goals, saying that there are “billions and trillions” of dollars worth of existing assets that would get stranded in the event companies were forced to make such changes.

In addition, uneven competition and loss of profitability can be barriers to sustainable solutions, he said, referring to the first-mover disadvantages that chemical manufacturers might face.

Such concerns underscore the strong support many chemical companies are providing for pending federal legislation creating a first-time federal “sustainable” chemistry program.

“There is surging global market demand for the use of sustainable chemistry in the development and manufacturing of products across consumer, commercial and military market,” said the GC3 Sustainable Chemistry Alliance -- a broad range of chemical and biochemical producers, downstream users and retailers -- in a recent statement. “The Sustainable Chemistry R&D Act helps coordinate efforts across all federal agencies to accelerate US innovation in this exciting emerging area of market growth.”

And “[s]trategically coordinating and leveraging federal investment in sustainable chemistry research, development, technology transfer, commercialization, education, training and support for private-academic partnerships can not only accelerate progress -- it also has a multiplier effect for private sector investment in this area,” the group added.

The alliance’s statement came after House and Senate lawmakers each attached versions of the bipartisan and bicameral legislation to pending defense authorization bills, clearing a path for its likely passage four years after they failed to include it legislation reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act.

In general, the sustainable chemistry legislation requires the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), together with officials from EPA and several other agencies, to create an interagency group “with responsibility to coordinate federal programs and activities” in support of “sustainable chemistry.”

The legislation requires the group, two years after enactment, to develop a strategic plan governing sustainable chemistry, though the legislation does not appear to define the term.

Instead, it requires the interagency group to “develop a working framework of attributes characterizing and metrics for assessing “sustainable chemistry,” after considering existing definitions, such as those developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and soliciting advice from a range of entities.

The legislation also encourages agencies to incorporate sustainable chemistry into existing research and development, technology transfer and other activities. And it allows participating agencies to “facilitate and support, through financial, technical or other assistance, the creation of partnerships between institutions of higher education, nongovernmental organizations, consortia, or companies across the value chain in the chemical industry.” 

‘Create Distraction’

While the industry is welcoming the legislation, company officials are still struggling with how to advance broader sustainability goals.

For example, SABIC’s Maughon also pointed out that chemical companies face infrastructure challenges as they seek to address concerns that their manufacturing facilities release GHGs.

“In Europe, it can take ten years to approve expansion of the [electrical] grid to handle renewable electricity in the grid,” he said. “So it has nothing to do with producing the electricity, anybody can get the capital to invest in building a wind or solar farm, but actually expanding the grid to handle the electricity is the problem.”

Even when a company strongly believes in a sustainable solution, Maughon says, it can take years to implement it, not even because the technology or capital doesn’t exist, but because of the complexity involved in doing so.

Jennifer Molnar, managing director and lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy’s Center for Sustainability Science told the panel that while companies are increasingly reporting external pressure to move toward sustainability, like calls from investors, they are also being driven by existential concerns stemming from climate change.

“Industry is feeling the impacts from climate change,” Molnar said. “Whether it’s exposure to extreme weather, facilities along the Gulf Coast being a risk from hurricanes or flooding, or temperature increases reducing process efficiency -- there are real ways that climate change is already having an impact on industry.”

As such, she said industry concerns about capital challenges can be addressed by turning an eye toward sustainability early in the research and development process. In addition, there are also cost-effective ways to offset emissions in the short-term as companies move toward a net-zero carbon goal.

She cited the case of a Dow Chemical Company facility, which found that planting a forest in south Texas was a “cost-competitive solution” to complying with GHG reduction goals.

“Dow is now on track, and it’s been exciting to see the transition,” she said.

But Gerard Baillely, senior vice president for R&D at Procter & Gamble urged companies to adopt sustainability approaches on their own, cautioning that while social pressure from consumers and lawmakers can help push industry in the right direction, it may not be the best approach holistically.

“They may create distraction,” Baillely said of these pressures. “We come back to biodegradability and biorenewal. It’s good to be biodegradable for certain applications. It’s good to have biorenewal as long as you don’t have unintended consequences on the supply chain. We are at a good place where action is generated, but if we are not careful, we are going to be driven by checkboxes based on legislation, and that may not be the best route.”

-- Diana DiGangi (ddigangi@iwpnews.com)