Challenge to reinvent chemicals sector

All compounds that exceed nature's assimilative capacity should be replaced with benign alternatives, according to a "vision" produced for the chemical industry, which calls for the sector to be "reinvented".1 Long-term objectives to minimise resource inputs and to achieve "zero waste" production are set out alongside recommendations to build closer relationships with users of chemicals.

The vision, launched on 6 July, was drawn up by the Chemistry Leadership Council - the body created two years ago to help the industry address challenges relating to skills, innovation and sustainable development (ENDS Report 336, pp 4-5 ). It was recommended by an Innovation and Growth Team convened by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The new report sets challenges for all chemistry-using industry. In his foreword, BASF chairman Barry Stickings notes how society's concerns have shifted from the production of chemicals to chemical products themselves.

Mr Stickings, who chairs the Leadership Council, says that consumers want all the benefits of the chemical industry - health, nutrition, clothing and transport - with none of the negatives. "This is the innovation challenge that is facing the chemical industry, but it is also an enormous opportunity."

The report finds that in the absence of radical change, it is likely that the public's overall trust in the chemical industry will remain low, and "calls for greater regulatory controls can be expected to increase."

A passage on relationships with users of chemicals notes how retailers have taken control of their food supply chains, insisting on traceability from each farmer and grower. "It's hard to imagine why they won't soon be making the same demands of their [chemical] suppliers," the report says.

Several environmental objectives are set out in the report, which is divided into sections on natural, human, social, manufactured and financial capital.

  • Natural capital: "Learning to live sustainably within the limits and carrying capacities of the natural world is a non-negotiable imperative," it says.

    "The process can be delayed but it cannot be avoided."

    It calls for life-cycle and systems thinking to be embedded "at the heart of all chemistry-using enterprises".

    Companies should get out of all persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals "as soon as possible". A UK database should help industry prioritise chemicals for phase-out over the next five years.

    In the longer term, all compounds that "exceed nature's assimilative capacity", in terms of persistence, toxicity or bioaccumulative potential, should be replaced with benign alternatives "as fast as is practicable".

    The report calls for the industry to commit to 10% of energy to be obtained from renewable sources by 2010. Non-hydrocarbon feedstocks should be maximised.

  • Manufactured capital: "Dematerialisation is the name of the game," the report says. "There are significant cost savings for companies that set about systematically reducing their impact. This should be as important a driver of performance, at board level, as health and safety has been over the last fifteen years."

    The vision includes industry targets to improve energy efficiency by 11% and water usage by 20% per tonne of production, by 2010. And it calls for a 25% reduction in hazardous waste per tonne of production by the same year.

    In the long term, the industry should maximise process efficiency, minimise energy, water and raw material inputs, and achieve zero waste in all production facilities.

  • Financial capital: Under this section, the report says that companies should conduct mass-balance audits of all inputs and outputs to significantly reduce waste and other externalities.

    It calls for improved transparency of external reporting and communications processes. And in the longer term companies should manage their supply chains on the same "progressive and proactive" basis everywhere in the world.

    "Investors are increasingly concerned to see that companies in high-profile and controversial sectors are managing their reputation-risks more effectively."

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