Such moves have sometimes been in response to outside events, such as impending legislation. On other occasions they have been in reaction to changes in the process technology or production patterns of downstream manufacturers.
Two recent examples include:
BASF produces plastics such as polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that are used to make bottles and other drinks containers.
Germany has introduced controversial measures requiring deposits to be placed on one-way containers for certain kinds of drinks. However, containers made from "ecologically favourable" materials, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, are exempt. The German government has recently unveiled plans to extend the system to other types of drinks.
Germany claims that it is supporting the use of refillable drink containers on environmental grounds, as such packaging systems consume less resources and generate less waste. But material manufacturers and packaging converters that produce one-way containers - primarily metal cans and plastic bottles, tubs and pouches - claim the measures are an unfair barrier to free trade.
In December, BASF announced that it had conducted an eco-efficiency analysis for dairy company Alois Müller comparing polystyrene or polypropylene plastic tubs for milk-based drinks with composite cartons and refillable glass bottles. It found that the plastic containers were the most eco-efficient.
The environmental impact of the three types of packaging was found to be "very similar" - although BASF's press release was headlined "Environmentally friendly even without a deposit". The economic part of the analysis found much greater differences, with plastic tubs the lowest-cost option.
BASF conducted the study to defend markets threatened by legislation. It said that the analysis "may help to guide future policy as it indicates that imposing a compulsory deposit on containers for milk-based drinks would not be a rational move."
BASF has publicised similar analyses comparing returnable and one-way PET water bottles with refillable glass bottles and aluminium cans, and polystyrene yoghurt pots with glass pots. In both cases the plastic packaging came top. Although the plastic yoghurt pots were "almost as environmentally friendly as glass", the company's press release was headlined "Environmentally friendly plastic cups".
All of these studies may indeed prove that the products made with BASF materials have a better overall performance. But the accompanying spin suggested something quite different - that they were the best on environmental grounds.
Washing machine drums
White goods such as fridges and washing machines are important markets for plastics produced by BASF such as polyurethane foams, polystyrene and polypropylene.
In 2001, the company carried out an analysis with the leading German appliance manufacturer Bosch und Siemens Hausgeraete comparing the eco-efficiency of washing machine drums made from polypropylene and the standard stainless steel.
In this case, BASF reacted to changes in a major downstream market and spotted an opening to develop a new application for one of its materials.
Washing machines with plastic drums were found to use less water and energy than those with steel drums because the plastic version could fit more snugly into the available space. They also made production of washing machines less costly because they were simpler to assemble and used fewer components.
Although steel drums could easily be recycled and plastic drums were landfilled, the latter option was much cheaper.
The message for appliance manufacturers was that switching to plastic tubs would pay off, even though it would require investment in new production lines.