Are chemical companies shifting from being the source of environmental problems to enablers of solutions?

Chemicals industry NGO sees the first steps towards more transparency and strategic evaluation

Link to sign up for a free trial to Responsible Investor

The times of dramatic environmental disasters and spills linked to the chemical industry are thankfully over in Europe. Some of you will still remember the Seveso disaster in 1976, where the TCDD – a carcinogenic chemical that was a contaminant in Agent Orange – leaked and a toxic cloud contaminated a densely populated area.

Or 1986, where a fire at a chemical storage of Sandoz burned 1,300 tons of chemicals and polluted the city of Basel and the river Rhine. Investments in safer facilities and handling have paid out in the last decades. But can we see the chemical industry as “key enabler of a sustainable society” as the association of the European chemical industry claims?

We still see a significant production of chemicals that fulfil the criteria of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), as laid out in the REACH European chemicals regulation. These are chemicals that have for a long time been known for their hazardous properties. ChemSec has researched data from the European Chemicals Agency ECHA and found 709 companies producing or importing SVHCs in Europe. When we narrowed it down to the 27 biggest listed chemical companies, we found that 16 of them produce SVHCs that have been officially put forward in the REACH process as candidate list chemicals.

To know the number of SVHCs each company produce or import is a good starting point. However, to understand the financial impacts chemical companies are facing regarding future bans and restrictions, it would be necessary to know the volume, how much profit they represent and if alternatives are available. At the moment this information can only be offered by chemical companies on a voluntary basis.

In order to take chemical companies’ ambition to contribute to sustainability seriously they need to reveal more information on environmental criteria – energy savings, water use or waste minimization. They need to disclose their strategy regarding the toxicity of their core portfolio. In the last few years there has hardly been any information available when looking at their sustainability reports. This year, however, we have seen some promising changes. For example, some chemical companies refer to the SVHCs and related strategies:Solvay is not only reporting the exact amount of SVHCs, but also on phase-out: “So, in total, 23 SVHCs (produced by Solvay or coming from raw materials incorporated in Solvay products) are part of the composition of products that Solvay markets in Europe. Six of them should undergo the authorization process, but Solvay is carrying out studies to substitute 5 of them in the short-term with a non-SVHC substance. The 17 other substances will be studied in order to define a replacement strategy in cooperation with suppliers.” Solvay has a dedicated multidisciplinary team to handle SVHCs.

Johnson Matthey has “brought in an additional member to the group’s product stewardship function, which has allowed us to put more resources into these activities. We have also instigated a new monitoring and alerting system for our businesses to enable them to better monitor chemical substances considered to be of concern because of their intrinsic hazard. We remain committed to improving publicly available information on the safe use of chemicals and explanation of their effects on health and the environment.”

Umicore is reporting for products containing REACH candidate list chemicals: “In total, the products sold that contain these substances account for less than 0.5% of Umicore’s revenues.”

Wacker tells us that it has been only marginally affected to date regarding REACH candidate list chemicals, with only a few purchased substances, and none of its own.

Others are focusing more on opportunities in developing alternatives or producing products with a better environmental profile and/or using green chemistry:

Akzo is committed to its product stewardship target: “To eliminate products and processes that are harmful to safety, health and/or the environment.” Akzo is also improving its products with the aim of increasing the product palette of “Eco-premium solutions” to 30% – up from 18% in 2007.

Clariant “is also attempting to reduce the toxicity of its products constantly by replacing existing hazardous chemicals with those that are safer. As part of the product safety and product responsibility programs, Clariant is constantly looking for substitutes for and alternatives to hazardous substances.”

DSM “is bolstering its approach to safer ingredients by bringing alternatives that are more environmentally friendly to the market in substitution of more hazardous chemicals. These actions are proactive and go beyond the legal requirements.”

Givaudan: “In simple terms, Green Chemistry looks at pollution prevention at a molecular level. We can identify ingredients that may be harmful to the environment at an early stage, and thus reduce, or even avoid, such substances. Green Chemistry programmes also allow us to optimise the use of our own resources including energy and raw materials, while minimising waste.”

A little more vague language is used by:

Croda: “During 2014, we will continue our strategy of gathering ingredient sustainability data to help fulfil our responsibility to reduce any negative impacts of our products throughout their lifecycle.”Elementis: “Our global product stewardship team is responsible for ensuring our products are safe for intended use, transport and to people and the environment throughout the products’ entire life cycle and that we are contributing to a more sustainable future.”

BASF: “For example, we review our product portfolio to identify those products and solutions that contribute to sustainable development. In addition, we ensure that sustainability is integrated into the development and implementation of our business units’ strategies and research projects.”

In our eyes these first steps towards more transparency and strategic evaluation and replacement of Substances of Very High Concern is promising, but more has to be done in the years to come. As every company mentioned here is still producing SVHCs we want to see more progress on phase-outs and development of safer alternatives. The chemicals industry is an essential player for a sustainable future as they produce the materials used for many products we need to transform our world in a sustainable way.

Sonja Haider is Business and Investors Advisor at non-profit organisation ChemSec, the International Chemical Secretariat.