Want to know about the environmental performance of a particular chemical manufacturer in the UK? Then good luck, because the vast majority of them do not make it easy. When it comes to being forward about disclosing the details, most of the industry is going backwards.
Publicly reporting on progress towards environmental goals is a key part of the Chemical Industries Association’s Responsible Care programme, which aims to convince the public that the industry can be trusted to run its operations responsibly and it is a positive force that brings many benefits to society.
All CIA members must adhere to the programme’s guiding principles. These include provisions that signatories must "monitor [their] health, safety and environmental performance and report progress to stakeholders". Similarly, the CIA’s guiding principles for sustainable development practice require its members to "report on performance and progress towards declared goals".
Ten or 15 years ago many chemical firms published annual reports that included data on the environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance of their UK operations, and some also produced separate reports for their major sites. But according to an ENDS survey of CIA member websites, very few CIA members continue to report national data directly to stakeholders. Today, most choose to interpret the guidelines to mean they can submit data to the CIA and allow it to publish only aggregated data that reveal nothing about their own record.
Excluding firms that have been taken over or gone out of business, the membership list on the CIA website includes some 176 companies. In many cases, some of the listed firms belong to the same parent company. For almost two thirds (60%) of firms, detailed EHS reporting for 2005/06 or a more recent 12-month period could not be found on the firm’s own website or that of its parent company. In other words, these firms do not report on their environmental performance at either UK or global level. In a handful of cases, such information was found in an annual report.
Furthermore, almost two thirds of CIA members that do report only do so as part of parent firms’ reports on the group’s global operations and aggregated data for the whole group.
Twenty-nine firms - one in six - do not appear even to have a statement on their own website or that of its parent company about their environmental policies or goals (see table on p 32).
Embarrassingly for the CIA, a third of the firms did not have easy-to-find information about Responsible Care on their website or that of their parent firm. Many of these firms are SMEs, but the group also includes multinational pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Clariant and Syngenta, as well as major chemical firms such as Croda, Ubiquem and Total Petrochemicals.
Reporting in the past
In the 1990s most major chemical firms with manufacturing sites in the UK saw national EHS reporting as a key tool in their efforts to improve their reputations. But this was when there were more large-scale petrochemical plants in the UK and there was no meaningful public pollution inventory providing site-specific data.
Moreover the industry’s environmental and safety record was constantly in the spotlight. In 1992, for example, a Greenpeace ship toured the country’s most polluted estuaries sampling the discharges of companies such as BP Chemicals, Associated Octel and Rhône-Poulenc. The following year Friends of the Earth (FoE) threatened to prosecute the directors of 14 chemical manufacturers that regularly breached their discharge consents.
In 1997 the newly established Environment Agency was forced to call in executives of ICI - still a major producer of bulk chemicals - to demand improvements in the group’s environmental record following a string of leaks and spillages at its sites (ENDS Report 269, pp 14-15 ).
There were also some bad accidents. Hickson & Welch was fined £250,000 after an explosion in 1992 at its Castleford works killed five workers and seriously injured two. The judge said the tragedy was "not just a casual breach of an employer’s duty" but a "plain gap in an employer’s management that should never have occurred". A huge fire in the same year at Allied Colloids’ Bradford site was caused, said the court, by a "dereliction of duty" and led to toxic firewater heavily polluting the adjacent river Calder.
The chemical industry responded in two ways. On one hand, a number of major chemical companies began publishing short but data-heavy site-specific or national HSE reports. But many companies were reluctant to do so. They argued that raw data did not indicate potential risk - and that if chemical companies were to publish such figures, other industrial firms should as well.
Around the same time, the CIA started publishing aggregated data from its members. The figures were based on the performance indicators of its Responsible Care scheme and covered areas such as air emissions, hazardous waste transfers and lost-time accidents.
The scheme had originated in Canada in the late 1980s in response to the Bhopal disaster in 1984 when a deadly leak of methyl isocyanate from US firm Union Carbide’s factory killed thousands of people and left the global chemical industry’s reputation in tatters.
Responsible Care started out as a code of practice that set environmental, health and safety standards for chemical firms, developing into more prescriptive guidance on upholding different aspects of the code. It was quickly taken up by the US chemical industry and then by the CIA, which set Responsible Care performance indicators in 1991 and published its first aggregated data two years later.
But UK environmental groups remained convinced that polluters would only be forced to drive down releases once site-specific data were published in a common format. FoE campaigned for a new law similar to the "community right to know" legislation in the USA that had established the Toxics Release Inventory - a publicly available list of the emissions of more than 600 substances from over 20,000 sites.
The government launched a chemical release inventory in 1994 based on data submitted to HM Inspectorate of Pollution - one of the precursors of the Environment Agency - by sites permitted under the integrated pollution control (IPC) regime. But the inventory only included aggregated, national data.
In response FoE established its own "factory watch" website that used the site data available on many public registers up and down the country to produce a user-friendly inventory of site-specific data (ENDS Report 289, pp 9-10 ). This led to the Agency launching a revamped "pollution inventory" in 1999 showing emissions from all sites under IPC.
The CIA welcomed the inventory as something that could be used to show the reduction in emissions that the chemical industry has achieved over the years - although the inventory did not reveal the extent that overall reductions were due to plant closures or say which chemicals are most toxic.
Today, some in the chemical industry argue that the pollution inventory provides most people with all the information they want. "The data is well-provided by the inventory’s search facility, ‘What’s in my Backyard’. That’s the information the public wants," says Ross Crocket, head of EHS and Responsible Care at Dow UK, "but we’re not asked for it." 1 But green groups have shifted attention from factory emissions to hazardous substances in products. In 2000 Greenpeace and FoE ran independent campaigns that warned retailers and product manufacturers that they planned to tell consumers which products contained hazardous substances such as organotins, alkyl phenols and artificial musks. FoE published league tables ranking companies as red, amber or green, depending on their responses (ENDS Report 307, p 23 ).
The same year saw the creation of the government’s Chemicals Stakeholder Forum (CSF), which aimed to fill the vacuum caused by the struggling EU programme to evaluate the health and environmental risks of the thousands of chemicals available and speedily identify those that required restrictive measures.
The campaigns continued for several years and led a small group of chemical firms and retailers to establish a forum - the supply chain leadership group (SCLG) - to address public concerns about chemicals in products. But few retailers took an active lead on chemicals, the SCLG quietly fell away and the CSF failed to get chemical companies to provide data quickly.
However, green groups in the EU were influential in persuading governments and MEPs to adopt a new chemicals evaluation regime - the EU Regulation on the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals (REACH) - which puts the onus on the producer to prove a chemical is safe. Over the next ten years this will involve chemical firms in the mammoth task of submitting risk assessments for the chemicals or face their removal from the market.
By failing to address the products issue, the chemical industry did little to forestall the Regulation. "Responsible Care did not address enough the issue of product stewardship and maybe that is why we got REACH," says CIA chief executive Stephen Elliott. "Collectively as an industry, we should have anticipated that REACH was going to be upon us earlier than we did."
But environmental groups have relaxed the pressure on the chemicals industry. "The factory watch campaign was pretty successful - emission levels are so much better now," says FoE campaigns head, Mike Childs. "We then moved on to address chemicals in products and got a few retailers, such as Boots, to change the way they looked at the issue, but after a few years we felt we had done as much as we could…
"Now that REACH has been adopted, we will keep an eye on how well the new European Chemicals Agency polices the evaluation process but our focus today is much more on climate change and global challenges. Our new five-year campaigns strategy, due later this year, will continue to reflect this."
And perhaps that is as it should be. More broadly, the sector is more closely regulated today than in the 1990s. Sites deemed to hold dangerous substances must submit annual safety reports to the Health and Safety Executive. The industry has gradually been brought under the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) regime that replaced IPC, and the Agency has produced a chemicals sector plan that sets out the roles that regulation and voluntary measures are expected to play in improving the industry’s long-term performance. There are also tighter rules on treating and landfilling hazardous wastes such as filter cakes, and since 2001 sites have reported to the CIA on their greenhouse gas emissions as part of the sector’s climate change agreement with the government.
Meanwhile, growth has slowed in the commodity chemicals sector as production has shifted to the growing economies of Asia and to the Middle East. This means the UK industry is increasingly dominated by the production of high-performance, lower-volume specialty chemicals and less by plants producing big volumes of basic petrochemicals.
The result is that emissions have dropped both in absolute terms and in relation to output. And together with less pressure from NGOs and the fact that more chemical companies are now headquartered outside the UK, this has led to a significant drop off in reporting at the national and site level. "Around three quarters of our membership is foreign headquartered…there is a challenge right across the board for UK managers in such companies to highlight their own performance," says Mr Elliott.
But high foreign ownership is not the whole story. Take the works in Staveley, Derbyshire, owned by French firm Rhodia. Under former owner Rhône-Poulenc - another French firm - it used to report HSE data. But along with Rhodia’s three other UK locations, the Staveley site data on the UK website stops in 2003.
The CIA continues to publish aggregated data on its members’ environmental and safety performance, but does not see the need for firms to publish their own figures. Asked if it should encourage members to produce UK reports, head of Responsible Care John Roche says merely that they are "free to do that if they wish".
Public discussion needed
Most seem happy to ignore the issue, but is this good enough? With such a mute voice, without entering into public debate about issues such as the precautionary principle and the quality of risk assessment, how can the public be reliably informed and come to trust the industry? And how can firms that make real efforts to design out the use of hazardous substances improve their resource efficiency and minimise safety risks receive the recognition they deserve?
Perhaps now that the spotlight has moved away from their production plants, chemical companies feel there is no need to report. After all, unless you live next door to a chemical factory, members of the public have no real contact with the industry.
But the public is not the only stakeholder. Reporting guidelines published by the Environment Department (DEFRA) in 2006 argue that "good reporting improves customer confidence" and that businesses can benefit from improved reputation among their customers (and potential customers) by reporting on relevant environmental issues in a "clear and transparent way". Moreover, "investors, financial analysts and brokers are now asking questions about the sustainability of business operations" and environmental reporting "provides a good indication of what measures an organisation is taking to reduce risks and develop opportunities".
Malcolm Wicks, then minister for industry as well as energy, said environmental reporting was a trend the government was "keen to encourage". A few months earlier, then head of the CIA Judith Hackitt had told the trade association’s annual meeting she was "seriously worried" about the sector’s "apparent lack of interest" in sustainability and the "apparent desire to be led there by others".
If companies are collecting the data anyway to pass on to the CIA, and much of the emissions data can be found on the Agency’s pollution inventory, what is there to lose?
The CIA’s Stephen Elliott says companies remain nervous of tackling the sector’s poor reputation head on. "Companies think that what they are doing [to manage their environmental performance] is standard and expected and has no external value."
He "accepts there is a question about transparency because what we generate is aggregated data", and suggests public reporting could be seen as an opportunity. "When you look at the number of good news stories we got from our industry awards last year it makes you think, why are they sitting on these things?"
So will chemical manufacturers seize the opportunity to tell people what they are doing to help produce products and materials that can benefit society and the natural environment? And can the sector improve its still poor reputation and so attract the chemists and business managers it needs?
Perhaps chemical firms feel the public cannot make the connection between chemicals and the products they go into. However, one of the world’s largest chemical firms, BASF, has just attempted to portray itself and its products as climate-friendly (see p 11 ).
But green groups are likely to see this as a tactic to divert attention from the industry’s key impact - the manufacture of toxic substances and their release into the environment from products.
This is where the next battle is about to be fought. Last summer the main green groups produced an activists’ guide to REACH that highlights opportunities to for NGOs and members of the public to use the Regulation to seek substitution of toxic substances.
There has never been a better time for the CIA and other chemical industry trade bodies to introduce product stewardship indicators into their reporting programmes and for firms to have the courage to do the same.