The first half of this article discussed policies to discourage the use of non-renewable and unsafe chemicals; namely banning chemical products and using taxes or subsidy removal to increase the price of less eco-friendly chemicals.
Follow this link to read Do Carrots or Sticks Expand Renewable Chemical Use? Part 1
Given the challenges faced with these ‘sticks’, perhaps it makes more sense to apply ‘carrots’ to encourage non-renewable chemical use.
Perhaps the biggest boost to the renewable chemicals industry comes from public demand and the desire to use eco-friendly alternatives, even at a higher price.
Much of the growth in the ‘green chemicals’ industry is based on consumer trend. As the business journal CEO Magazine, expresses, “By 2025, the global organic personal care market is projected to reach US$25.11 billion, with the largest markets in North America and Europe, and the fastest-growing market in Asia.”
But this growth in renewable chemical use is not only based on trendy brands for niche markets. There exists a more general shift towards eco-friendly chemicals. As Kelly Baker, founder The Beauty Insider magazine, makes clear, “Long-established brands initially didn’t pay much attention to green or natural lines. But ethical, green, cruelty-free, natural beauty brands are now so popular that the big houses have two options – buy smaller, ethical brands themselves or come up with smaller lines to capitalise on the demand.”
Adding that, “The beauty industry is being driven by two main trends - technology and demand for eco and sustainable products.”
However, the problem with hoping for renewable chemical growth is that so many of the chemicals we use are hidden inside the products we buy. Consumers can choose which face cream to use based on eco-friendly packaging and a name/brand/product design that explains that the chemicals used are environmentally friendly. But what does the public know about the dyes used in the clothes that we wear? Are they eco-friendly?
Why does eco-friendly branding work for cosmetics, but not for household paint?
To answer this question would need a sociological study of great depth, beyond the scope of this article. However, change in the market for environmentally friendly ‘hidden chemicals’ can be seen. For example, in 2015, Chemours began production of Teflon EcoElite, the company’s first plant-based product as well as the first renewably-sourced water repellent for the textile industry. A chemical product which the company claims is able to deliver high-performance wash durability.
As the product’s designer, John Sworen, a Technical Fellow at Chemours, made clear in a recent interview with the chemical industry journal ChemWeek. “It's 60% renewable but does not sacrifice performance. Feedback from customers, brands, and consumers have favoured Teflon EcoElite for both its durability and sustainability.”
Textiles is just the first targeted application. “Chemours is definitely looking to expand the Teflon EcoElite portfolio, and we are currently looking at other markets Chemours operates in,” Sworen says. The textiles market was chosen by Chemours as a focus point due to the industry's need to improve its sustainability profile. “Really, the market-driven research for Teflon EcoElite started there because of that demand from brands.”
But Chemours, keen to maintain its own brand image, isn’t stopping at Teflon EcoElite, but instead, “.. plans to look at further opportunities to incorporate renewable feedstocks into its production, which will help it reach its ambitious sustainability goal to be carbon-positive by 2050.”
However, this trend is less evident in other chemical industry sectors, as the industry journal European Coatings, notes, “The European Solvents Industry Group (ESIG) says that more than 5 million tonnes of solvents [60% of which are used in paints, surface coatings, printing inks, and adhesives] are consumed in the European Union every year. But only 630,000 tonnes, or less than 13% of the total, is bio-based.” A total that is similar to the 12% global market share for renewable solvents.
Clearly more than just consumer demand is needed if renewable chemicals are to make real headway into the core of the chemicals industry.
Pockets of optimism are present in some sectors, as Dr. Idoia Etxeberria, who works in R&D at the Spanish-based non-profit firm Technalia states, “The [coatings] industry is working on solutions to further cut down on the use of hazardous and, in some cases, toxic chemicals. It’s also paying closer attention to life cycles in its environmental impact assessment.” Concluding that, “Green chemical technology is set to take on a greater role in the chemical industry for renewable solutions.”
However, a major shift in public awareness of the renewable chemical options available and the readiness to pay more for a healthier environment is required before the chemicals industry can claim a chair at the circular economy table.
Believing that political bodies or governments will take the necessary steps has no historical basis. At present, government involvement in the expansion of the renewable chemical industry suffers from three major flaws;
1. A lack of unity of policy from country to country.
A chemical product banned in Canada is legal in the US. A tax applied in California is not applicable in Japan.
2. The impossibility of defining ‘environmentally safe’.
As the American Chemical Society’s report ‘Greener Cleaner’ states, “The road to green is not necessarily a smooth one. For one thing, there is no consensus on what is considered natural.”
3. How eco is eco?
Asking how much of a product needs to contain renewable chemicals before it can be called good for the environment is a good question. As the industry journal European Coatings reports, “Many paints and surface coatings bearing labels such as ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are already available on the market. While it is true that bio-based or renewable raw materials are increasingly finding their way into product formulations, their content is usually small and the number of bio-based products itself is not exactly unmanageable. As for natural dyes, their renewables content is high, but not all formulations are composed entirely of bio-based raw materials.”
Given the complexity of the issue, perhaps drive for expanding the renewable chemicals industry needs to come from the boardroom. The desire in us all as human beings to do what is right for the planet.
Or does increasing the use of renewable chemicals require more than naive thinking?