Environmental sustainability isn’t a mere fad or legal obligation, but a logical, moral, and practical approach to doing business on a large scale. It’s all about balancing productivity, based on a company’s need to be profitable, with the environmental impact of its operations.
In essence, sustainability is about weighing the long-term effects of economic and technological progress against the availability of natural resources, as well as the wellbeing of all the organisms we share our planet with.
The chemical industry is at the forefront of this dilemma because of the strong environmental impact of chemical manufacturing processes. Various environmental challenges, like air pollution, soil pollution, and energy consumption, are faced by chemical manufacturing companies on a daily basis. Achieving efficiency in all aspects of production is key to addressing these challenges and supporting a sustainable future.
In this post:
Sustainability in the Chemical Industry
Sustainability in the chemical industry is crucial to our world’s ongoing objective to reach net zero targets and protect the future of our planet. As the global production of goods continues to skyrocket, it’s clear to see the consequences that industrial manufacturing has had on the environment over the past 200 years, from localised damage to wildlife habitats and water sources, to large-scale effects, such as global warming and ozone depletion.
Problems continue to arise as the industry grows. In 2019, for example, the revenue of the UK’s chemical industry stood at 62.8 billion euros. However, this also coincided with the 4% jump to 45,859,000 tonnes of waste to landfill in England. According to a 2018 report, about 37.2 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste was generated in England alone.
This drives the need for sustainable practices in every sector, including the chemical industry. Luckily, there a few things chemical manufacturing companies can do to lessen their environmental impact, as we have done at ReAgent:
- Solid waste management
Recycling is one of the best ways to reduce solid waste from chemical factories. From paper to electronic products, many forms of waste can be recycled or repurposed. Zero waste to landfill is the goal.
- Proper handling of hazardous waste
Other types of waste from the chemical industry, like batteries and heavy metals, are considered hazardous waste that should be disposed of in a proper manner based on regulatory requirements. For example, sealed containers are often required when disposing of hazardous waste to prevent toxic leaks that could destroy or contaminate surrounding landscapes.
- Anti-pollution devices
The chemical industry has anti-pollution devices that eliminate or at least reduce the level of pollution. For instance, industrial scale catalytic converters are installed in the exhaust towers of chemical factories to transform harmful fumes, like carbon monoxide or hydrocarbons, into less harmful fumes, like carbon dioxide or water vapour.
- Renewable energy sources
Just like other industries, the chemical industry is incentivised to install their own renewable energy sources, like grid-tied solar panels and wind turbines. This will allow companies to continue meeting demand and increasing productivity in a sustainable way.
Implementing A.I. technology will automate many of the routine manufacturing processes and, in turn, increase the efficiency of operations.
How to Measure Sustainable Chemistry
Since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, many international accords have been signed and ratified by member nations of the UN. While some are simply guidelines, others are legally binding, such as those seeking to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. Many governments have also enacted their own laws geared towards sustainable development. Some of these laws and international conventions cover the chemical industry.
However, despite all this, there’s still no universally accepted standard methodology of assessing sustainability, especially in the chemical industry. As green technologies and manufacturing processes arise, there’s a growing need to accurately assess the sustainability of these technologies and processes. How can we truly say that a chemical manufacturing process is environmentally sustainable if we can’t measure it?
Policymakers, business owners, scientists, factory managers, and other stakeholders find it difficult to determine and agree on specific measurable and traceable metrics when assessing the sustainability of manufacturing processes. Although there are guidelines relating to things like acceptable pollution levels, the devil is in the details. Specific parameters or indicators must be measured on a gate-to-gate basis so that every step of every process can be traced.
Measuring sustainable chemistry must consider five main aspects of sustainability:
- Environmental impact
- Energy consumption
- Operational efficiency
- Economic consideration
- Health and safety
Statistical methodology must also be carefully chosen as data sets may vary from one stage of the process to another. There must be an appropriate normalisation technique and the use of multivariate statistical tools. Bottlenecks and possible improvements must also be identified.
Common Sustainability Indicators
Sustainability indicators of chemical manufacturing vary depending on the index or the indicator set that you use. They will also vary depending on local and regional regulations. Some of the publicly available indicator sets used as a basis for assessing sustainable manufacturing are listed below. They assess both the process and the products as they pertain to the level of sustainability. They also cover a broad range of indicators and factors that are either generalised or highly specific:
- Global Report Initiative (GRI)
- Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (DJSI)
- 2005 Environmental Sustainability Indicators (ESI)
- Environment Performance Index (EPfI)
- United Nations-Indicators of Sustainable Development (UN-CSD)
- Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Core Environmental Indicators (CEI)
- Ford Product Sustainability Index (Ford PSI)
- International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Environment Performance Evaluation (EPE) standard (ISO 14031)
- Environmental Pressure Indicators for European Union (EPrI)
- Japan National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP)
- European Environmental Agency Core Set of Indicators (EEA-CSI)
Discussing the details of these various indicator sets is beyond the scope of this article, so here are the general aspects of sustainability that they cover:
- Environmental impact: This refers to the negative effects on the environment, such as air pollution, hazardous waste, and ecological disruption
- Energy consumption: This is directly connected to the carbon footprint of a chemical manufacturing company. A company that uses renewable energy is more sustainable than a company that is too dependent on fossil fuel
- Operation efficiency: Efficiency is typically measured in terms of productivity over time. Higher productivity at a shorter time period is considered very efficient
- Economic considerations: The so-called economy of scale is an important consideration. It not only reduces the cost of production, it also minimises the waste per unit of production
- Health and safety: Many chemicals are hazardous because they’re either corrosive or poisonous. Some are even carcinogenic. Having the right health and safety protocols is an important aspect of sustainability
- Employee competence: Highly competent employees mean better job safety and productivity. This ultimately translates into sustainability as every staff member will be well-trained in sustainable practices
How Can the Chemical Industry Be More Sustainable in the Future?
Smart green technology is key in making the chemical industry more sustainable in the foreseeable future and beyond. Human civilisation as we know it today will always be dependent on the chemical manufacturing industry, whether it’s for B2B applications or for individual consumers, so making the industry as eco-friendly as possible is crucial.
Many sustainable practices and technologies are now being implemented by chemical manufacturers across the world, with a key emphasis on automation. From monitoring and adjusting the parameters of manufacturing processes to ensuring the health and safety of employees, A.I. can achieve the most efficient and cost effective routes for production in the chemical industry.
All content published on the ReAgent.ie blog is for information only. The blog, its authors, and affiliates cannot be held responsible for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from using the information provided. Additionally, we do not recommend using any chemical without reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can be obtained from the manufacturer. You should also follow any safety advice and precautions listed on the product label. If you have health and safety related questions, visit HSE.gov.uk.