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Circularity in the chemical industry: Unlocking sustainable solutions for a greener future


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Introduction

As countries, companies and individuals alike continue to seek sustainable and environmental solutions to challenges that surround us in everyday life, we seek to decarbonise supply chains, recycle materials at their End of Life (EoL), and use alternatives to fossil fuels. More recently, a circular economy has been proposed whereby the goal is to minimise waste and maximise reuse of non-virgin materials. In this way, materials from the breakdown of a product at its EoL can be used in the synthesis of new products, for multiple lifecycles, hence leading to circularity. In this article, we look at attempts to circularise the chemical sector as it is one of the highest emitters of CO2 of all the UK sectors, and is very difficult to decarbonise, according to Jin Xuan (Head of Department, Chemical Engineering Loughborough University) [1].

 

Historic perception of manufacturing and factors for change

In the last 75 years, post-World War II, we have seen an increase in consumerism and productivity, first in the western world, and now more globally. It was only in 1987 that the word “sustainability” first appeared, in the Brundtland Report produced by several countries for the UN. Overtime, this has led to an expectation from the public that industries become more environmentally friendly and a study survey from Southern Cross University, Australia, revealed that today, 87% of respondents make a personal effort to live an eco-friendly lifestyle [2].

In many cases, regulations are beginning to be introduced to prevent the “take-make-dispose” model from being used. Companies themselves are becoming increasingly committed to sourcing chemicals more sustainably as well as looking for solvents that are less damaging at their EoL. This is exemplified by pharmaceutical companies growing their Green Chemistry divisions, where an emphasis is placed on utilising raw materials, solvents and other reagents from non-fossil fuel sources [3]. Finally, there has been growing research in academia to seek out solutions to the current wasteful and harmful practices we see in the chemicals business. A particular growing field has been the use of machine learning and AI to  predict the EoL scenarios of chemicals and map how they could be fed into the synthesis of new products, to enhance circularity [4].

 

Examples of increasing circularity in business

When thinking about sustainability and circularity, an obvious starting point is to think of products that are currently produced from fossil fuel sources. Surfactants, including detergents, have long been synthesised from petrochemical-derived hydrocarbons, but companies are now looking to fermentation of biobased materials in bioreactors as an alternative. Holiferm is one such company, that makes cleaning products for industrial and personal care uses. They use rapeseed oil and sugar as renewable raw materials, in conjunction with yeast to produce a sophorolipid solution, used in cleaning applications. Furthermore, the by-product of this process is used as an animal feed, limiting waste and increasing circularity. Holiferm have further plans to obtain the rapeseed oil from waste cooking oil in future, which will further circularise other industries such as the catering industry, limiting the disposal of used cooking products [5]. Holiferm aren’t alone in this field with Sirius International also producing surfactants from 100% vegetable and mineral sources such as their SLES product. To further circularise their products, they are looking to the cosmetics industry, and its waste oil, which can be reused in surfactant production.

 

Elsewhere, companies are looking to replace petrochemical-derived fine chemicals with waste biomass upcycled products. Sonichem (formerly Bio-Sep), have patented a process to take low grade woody feedstock and use ultrasonic energy fractionation to produce high grade lignin which can be used as an alternative to phenol, produced from fossil fuels. The lignin can be used in resins and composites and is found naturally in wood. This means that at the product’s EoL, there is less requirement for processing before it can be safely returned to soil for carbon sequestration. Moreover, the organic solvent used in the patented process is recovered and reused, to further reduce the requirement for new chemical synthesis. Strategic Allies Ltd have written a Tech Spotlight for Sonichem, which provides more information on their process and stage of development. Apeel has taken a major step towards increasing circularity in the food packaging space, simply by finding an alternative to plastics. Their solution uses plant-based mono- and diglycerides as a protective matrix around the fresh produce to keep the moisture within the plant and oxygen out, hence slowing spoilage. This protective coat goes back to the soil at the EoL, turning to compost for the next generation of plants to grow and the process can therefore be repeated.

 

As companies work to improve their environmentally friendly credentials, there has been a big push to reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions. However, Scope 3 emissions continue to be difficult to address, due to difficulties in tracking materials and end products in their supply chain. This is where the Mass Balance concept is beginning to become globally acknowledged. Here, a defined set of rules for tracing the content of circular and renewable feedstock in materials enables companies and consumers to verify that their products have been produced from organic waste, crops or vegetable oils. Solvay have used this approach to produce Rhovanil MB, the first International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) PLUS certified vanillin, used in flavouring, foods, perfumes and pharmaceuticals. Vanillin can be found in the vanilla bean, but this plant remains limited worldwide and fluctuates in terms of quality and price. Solvay’s solution takes ferulic acid from rice bran and applies bioconversion principles to produce the vanillin compound. BASF are another example of a large player actively working towards circularity throughout their value chain. Their ChemCycle® project aims to work with technology partners to turn plastics and tyres into pyrolysis oil which is then fed into BASF’s Verbund sites worldwide. This pyrolysis oil replaces fossil resources and using third party auditing, they can certify the products created as Ccycled®.

Conclusion

Overall, it is clear to see that companies are making greater efforts to be sustainable. In the last five years, a vast majority of companies have signed sustainability pledges and actively consider this parameter when designing new products. This includes assessing the product’s raw material requirements, durability, and end of life. The shift in thinking has come primarily as a result of pressures from consumers and regulations, with customer-facing industries such as the FMCG market and petrochemical-reliant businesses seeing high rates of investment and change. It may be difficult for a single company to truly circularise their products, from manufacture, to collection, to reuse, but initiatives such as Mass Balance or BASF’s Verbund concept may allow companies to benefit from other companies’ waste streams in order to produce circularity at large scale. In closing, it is important to remain objective when designing new circular product pathways. An example is the growing concerns over energy requirements associated with product reuse. On paper, collecting your products and refurbishing for reuse is an excellent example of sustainability, but if the product is manufactured/refurbished in China and sold worldwide, the transport of the product alone may produce more emissions than are saved from producing a new product from locally sourced materials.

Whether companies are seeking to circularise their products internally, tap into waste feedstocks from adjacent industries for their own raw material needs, or better understand how they can design their products for EoL, Strategic Allies Ltd will be here to guide our clients towards maximum impact.

References

  1. Jin Xuan on the chemical industry – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8Jh6JpvcVk.
  2. Southern Cross University study – https://online.scu.edu.au/blog/going-green/
  3. Green Chemistry at Pfizer: https://www.pfizer.com/news/articles/green_chemistry_a_more_sustainable_approach_to_medicine_development
  4. Machine Learning to predict EoL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9993395/
  5. Holiferm article in Metro: https://holiferm.com/wp-content/uploads/1301-RICHARD-LOCK-HOLIFERM.pdf