The Chemical Industries Association has published annual indicators of the sector's performance for some years as part of its "Responsible Care" programme. In 2000, it beefed up the scheme by making it mandatory for companies to report performance data.
The latest make-over is a range of targets for improvements in sustainable development performance. The targets cover energy and resource use, operational impacts, product performance and pollution incidents. Further targets on health and safety and the social and economic aspects of sustainable development will follow.
The targets are all to be met by 2010. Those set so far include: an 11% reduction in energy consumption, a 20% reduction in water consumption per tonne of production, and a 25% reduction of hazardous waste per tonne, both against a 2000 baseline.
Other targets include a halving of the number of distribution incidents, and no major accidents which are reportable to the European Commission under the COMAH regime. In 1999/2000, the last year for which figures are available, there were ten reportable accidents in the UK, of which six involved chemical manufacturing sites and one a tank storage and distribution business (ENDS Report 322, pp 8-9 ).
Further environmental targets should appear later this year, and the CIA hopes to finalise the complete set of targets by mid-2004. Dai Hayward, general manager of Thomas Swan and chairman of the Responsible Care board, said it was time for the industry to "put their money were their mouth is" and set forward-looking targets.
Mr Hayward said there was some concern among companies that the industry might just be "setting itself up to fail". The targets needed to be tough enough to be credible but realistic enough to be achievable.
Although the environmental targets are a step forward, there are doubts about the extent to which they will require improvements beyond those required by law.
Doug Rodger, the CIA's Responsible Care director, says that that targets have been set "top down" - by extrapolating trend data on performance - rather than "bottom up" by asking companies what reductions they think are achievable and setting targets accordingly.
However, the CIA has only three years of data on environmental impacts based on the indicators it now employs. This was "not long enough to give us any confidence...so we had to take a view," he said. "If they are too conservative we're quite prepared to increase them," he added.
The only well-researched target - for energy use - is not new. It is the target set for the sector under its climate change levy agreement with the Government. Because of the effort involved, it was "not feasible" to set the other targets in this way, Mr Rodger explained.
The CIA's back-of-an-envelope approach to setting the targets may add to the feeling that they might be met simply through compliance with the law. Certainly, compared to past performance, they appear unambitious.
The CIA's own indicators show that the sector's production of "special waste" fell by 19% in 1999 alone and then again by 12.5% in 2000. Similarly, water use dropped by 18% in 2000 (ENDS Reports 306, p 9 and 320, p 10 ).
The results suggest that there may well be ample further opportunities to cut waste and water consumption. Indeed, in the mid-1990s Zeneca slashed hazardous waste generation by one-third in just three years as a result of a waste reduction programme (ENDS Report 288, pp 21-23 ).
Bradford chemicals firm AH Marks reports that it has cut water consumption per tonne of product by 40% since 1992 and waste by 75% over the same period.
The CIA's choice of indicators appears to be in line with those drawn up by an Institution of Chemical Engineers working group last year (ENDS Report 328, p 7 ). These recommend normalising environmental impacts, usually in terms of production tonnage.
ICI is already adopting this approach - and its target on hazardous waste is twice as ambitious as the CIA's. The company's targets for 2005 are a 10% cut in water consumption per tonne of production and a 25% cut in hazardous waste per tonne, both against a 2000 baseline.
Ineos Chlor has targets for a 5% water use reduction per tonne and a 10% cut in waste over the five years to 2005.
From March this year, the chemicals sector is to be phased into the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) regime. This will require companies to use the best available techniques to reduce water consumption, waste and pollution, driving improvements in performance (ENDS Report 333, pp 22-25 ).
Moreover, production is likely to shift over the next ten years as modern plant, built to higher IPPC standards, takes the place of older technologies. The process seems likely to contribute to continued improvements in environmental performance.
It is unclear how the CIA plans to encourage individual members to contribute to the targets, but firms that feel they are making all the running are likely to place peer pressure on laggards. The CIA does not intend to report on individual members' performance.