The chemical sector is a four trillion-dollar global business, providing direct and indirect employment to more than 20 million people. From the food that we consume to the clothes that we wear, the technology that we harness to fertilizers used for crops, chemical use is ubiquitous. The chemical industry uses a wide range of raw materials, most of which are non-renewable resources. More than 100 million man-made chemicals are used across every sector for the industrial economy such as health, hygiene, construction, and mobility, agriculture, and energy supply. Besides, chemical plants release pollutants into the local environment, air, and waterways, affecting biodiversity, agricultural production, and water quality. Hence, one of the significant challenges that the chemical industry face is the pressure of sustainability, owing to growing concerns over climate change and waste. However, the chemical industry is gradually undergoing transition to adapt more sustainable practices, and working towards responsible production, usage, and management of chemicals.
As much as 96% of everything produced needs chemicals, which means when chemicals become sustainable, there will be a huge multiplier effect. Hence, the chemical companies can act as a key enabler for the decarbonization of various industries. Chemical companies are undertaking decarbonization initiatives to reduce the footprint of their products and developing innovative and green solutions to meet the requirements of end users. In addition, chemical companies are closely working with stakeholders to build resilience in supply chain in response to the climate change. Companies such as Henkel and Solvay are revolutionizing the chemical industry by taking the lead in innovative re-useability and focusing on chemistry to power sustainability in industries. Henkel’s Persil Ultra Concentrate makes the packaging smaller by increasing the concentration of the ingredients, which could help in minimize plastic waste and reduce carbon emissions. Solvay has innovated a highly stable battery that ensures their safe use in electric vehicles, and other electronic devices.
Impact of Sustainability on Chemical Industry
Preventing Plastic Wastage
More than 8 billion metric tons of plastic are produced annually, out of which 6.3 billion metric tons become waste. By 2050, the plastic waste could reach 12 billion metric tons on landfills if the present trends continue. If recycled, collected, sorted, and processed responsibly, plastic waste can be transformed into new plastic products. However, recycling plastic is a challenge as thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics are dumped together, which makes it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces into separate types for processing. To address the challenge, artificial intelligence technologies are being employed to increase automated sorting efficiency.
Robotic recycle sorting utilizes artificial intelligence and robotics to sort plastics with the help of advanced cameras, sensors, and high-tech computer systems, designed to recognize specific objects. The robotic arms are able to snag cans, glass, plastic containers, and other recyclable items out of garbage and place them in respective bins. As the quality standards continue getting stricter, the companies are working to find reliable solutions to increase the quality of material output and double resale value. The new recycling technologies can break down plastic waste into transform them into secondary raw materials to produce new chemicals and plastics as those made with petroleum sources. Some chemical solvents that separate additives and other components in the plastic waste are under development process.
Shift towards Bio-based Chemicals
Although biomaterials have long been part of our daily lives, recent advances in biotechnology have introduced new varieties of bio-based chemicals. Biomaterials offer sustainability benefits such as reduced carbon footprints, improved biodegradability, or recyclability of materials, and superior performance in certain applications. Bio-based chemicals are wholly or partly derived from materials of biological origin such as plants, algae, crops, trees, marine microorganisms, and biological waste. For instance, biopolymers are widely used in soft drink industry to produce bio-based beverage bottles. Besides, they are also used across several end-user industries such as cosmetics, solvents, inks, and other standard products.
Advances bolstered by accelerating innovations in computing, automation, and artificial intelligence are resulting in a new Bio Revolution, leading to the production of materials, chemicals, and energy, which could amount to USD200 billion to USD300 billion in global market growth. As the consumer demand for green products is rising, regulators are pushing for reducing carbon emissions and environmental leakage of plastics that do not biodegrade.
The bio-based chemicals and polymers market is anticipated to register growth at a formidable rate as key players are introducing innovative products and processes and collaborating with back-end players in the value chain. Besides, government incentives and rising awareness of the need to control climate change are some of the factors driving the growth of the bio-based chemicals and polymers industry in the coming years. Chemical manufacturers are constantly innovating and researching alternative bio-feedstock to reduce the cost of manufacturing and collaborating to support the development of bio-based fuels. In 2020, Cargill collaborated with Virent to investigate the use of Cargill’s corn dextrose as feedstock for creating low-carbon biofuels and biochemicals.
Advanced biorefinery platforms for chemicals production from Macroalgae
Rapid urbanization and limited availability of fossil fuels have created a great demand for renewable energy development. Consequently, the interest in developing innovative biorefinery approaches to produce bio energies and biopolymers from renewable sources have escalated in recent years. Biorefineries utilize the optimum energy potential of organic resources to produce bioenergy, which facilitate the circular bioeconomy that closes the loop of organic or fresh resources, minerals, carbon, and water. The idea behind circular bioeconomy is to conserve the long-term usage of biomass resources, minimize contamination on both environment and end-product. Several laboratories are working on the utilization of macroalgae for the production of bioethanol and lactic acid. Macroalgae are best alternative to terrestrial plants as they are abundance in supply and have the ability to grow in seawater.
Advanced technologies and novel systems are being applied to manufacture bio-based chemicals, biofuels, etc. from renewable sources to scale up production and commercialization. These technologies are yielding high returns, delivering enhanced performance, and providing precision at lower prices.
Sustainable Supply Chain Management in Chemical Industry
Ensuring sustainability in supply chain is essential pre-requisite for the future viability of companies to meet economic criteria, ecological, and social criteria. Improving supply chain would require deep visibility and right insights, which would help in making quick and effective decisions. Leveraging real-time visibility and advanced analytics can help track delays by providing revised ETAs and analysing downstream impacts of late materials shipments. Enhanced accessibility to data-driven insights can alert companies of a delay almost immediately and provide the necessary information that can help to quickly pivot and source raw materials from another supplier. Hence, the adoption of digital tools and technologies would be highly beneficial for the chemical companies to strengthen their supply chain management and drive profitability.