This article is reproduced with permission from Chemical & Engineering News (© 2022 American Chemical Society). The article was first published on March 1, 2022.

The chemical industry and the chemistry underscoring it need to radically change if we are to achieve a sustainable future. While the industry and its products have played an essential role in driving sustainable development and a high quality of life for people, they are also a primary contributor to the climate change, toxic pollution, and plastic waste problems that threaten human and planetary health. This existential crisis undermines the industry’s contributions and creates a challenge that constrains the chemical enterprise’s ability to attract diverse new talent, investment, and trust.

Such statements may seem heretical coming from Peter Nieuwenhuizen, former chief technology officer of AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, and Joel Tickner, executive director of the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3), a business organization whose members include chemical manufacturers. But we believe that urgent action is needed. Without a major reinvention of the industry in the coming decades, we cannot adequately address the pressing global chemical pollution or climate change risks outlined by scientists.

This change will not be simple. The industry is locked into chemical and manufacturing technologies that are decades old and tied to fossil fuel assets and related investments. As a result, it is unable to react to change with agility or undertake breakthrough innovations. Yet the chemical industry is not beholden to oil. After all, this sector started by turning biobased chemicals like wood and plant oils into useful materials such as polymers and paint. We can rebuild a more innovative industry based on renewable and circular feedstocks.

The industry’s current structure and the research, education, investment, and consumption patterns that have reinforced it are unsustainable because of the following:

  • It is based on minor iterations to functionalize a small number of inexpensive basic chemicals, which limits innovation.
  • It requires massive economies of scale to be profitable, burdensome capital investments, and a focus on reducing operating costs—resulting in rigid production parameters and vulnerability to economic or supply chain disruptions.
  • Life-cycle health, safety, and environmental impacts were not considered in the design of most chemicals on the market today and are still not considered in the same way as cost and performance in research and decision-making.

Although the chemical industry has recently started to address its contributions to the climate and plastic waste crises, it has yet to accept its contributions to chemical pollution and environmental injustice globally. Reducing the industry’s impact within the existing structure of products and production is insufficient.

The time is ripe for a visionary yet achievable transition pathway for reinventing the chemical enterprise.

To achieve change at the scale required, we envision three interconnected strategies:

  • Transition from fossil fuels to renewables for powering the industry and building supplies of alternative sustainable feedstocks.
  • Develop a diverse set of innovative, tunable molecules using the principles of green chemistry and engineering, as well as manufacturing processes that are more flexible, distributed, and resilient and less harmful than the current ones.
  • Reimagine product design, delivery, and consumption patterns in cooperation with supply chain partners so that products use safer chemicals, have lower adverse impacts through their life cycles, and at the end of their lives can become raw materials for new products.

This transition will require actions similar to those that rapidly grew markets for the current generation of chemicals. Three broad-based implementation strategies will be needed:

  • Public-private, long-term investment for research and innovation, technology transfer, and commercializing and scaling of safer, more sustainable chemical products
  • Significant new regulatory and financial incentives and disincentives to reduce the production of and demand for fossil carbon–based and toxic chemicals and materials that cannot be recycled
  • Large public-private partnerships as well as sector and supply chain collaborations to eliminate harmful substances and drive the introduction of and grow markets for more sustainable chemicals and materials

To successfully implement this transition, we will need a diverse, interdisciplinary, and highly trained workforce and to ensure transition support for workers and communities.

This is a tall agenda, and there are substantial embedded interests resistant to such change. But from more than a decade working on collaborative actions to accelerate the growth of green chemistry through the GC3, we believe that many companies are ready for the challenge. The GC3 will work actively with its members—including major retailers, brands, chemical manufacturers, and innovative start-ups—to fundamentally change chemistry. We will partner with a growing global network of governments, advocates, academic institutions, businesses, and investment groups that share similar goals.

The time is ripe for a visionary yet achievable transition pathway for reinventing the chemical enterprise—to not only prioritize greenhouse gas reduction but simultaneously tackle the plastic crisis and chemical pollution. We believe that a coordinated, concerted effort similar to the one that built the petrochemical industry to maturity during and in the decades following World War II can be organized to rebuild the industry differently. Factors such as massive post-COVID-19 investments in the economy; commitments by financial institutions to achieve carbon neutrality; new policy frameworks for sustainable chemistry innovation; and a growing population of consumers demanding safer, more sustainable products will make this change possible.

We are hopeful that given the right conditions, resources, leadership, and commitment, a new chemical enterprise that fulfills the needs of society—sustainably and with far less negative impact—will flourish.

Joel Tickner is a professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and executive director of the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3). Peter Nieuwenhuizen is a founding partner of the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund (ECBF) and chair of the GC3’s Board of Directors. This Opinion piece is based on research that underscores two articles in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development (2021, DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2021.1979857, and 2022, DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2022.2021793).

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This article is reproduced with permission from Chemical & Engineering News (© 2022 American Chemical Society). The article was first published on March 1, 2022. No further use or redistribution of any kind is permitted without C&EN/ACS express written permission.

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