8 lessons from Egypt in building a cleaner chemicals industry

8 lessons from Egypt in building a cleaner chemicals industry

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

The technology is there to reduce the environmental impact of Egypt’s chemical sector, but finance and capacity are still lacking.

In previous articles, I have looked at the impacts of the chemicals sector and innovations like green chemistry. But how do we share the technologies that are making the chemicals sector more sustainable, especially in rapidly emerging countries?

To answer this question, I’m going to shine the spotlight on Egypt – where factories are discharging 2.5m cubic metres of untreated effluent into the rivers every day, much of it laced with toxic chemicals. The country also faces a water and energy crisis. But three Egyptian companies are tackling these environmental issues through technology adoption and transfer.

The first is Arab Steel Fabrication Company (El Sewedy), which has applied a technological solution to recover hydrochloric acid from its galvanisation process. Besides the obvious environmental benefits, the company is saving 345,000 Egyptian pounds (£30,000) a year. The second company, Mac Carpet, has used technology to create an automatic system for recycling of thickener agents, which saves it about EGP5m per year.

The third case is El Obour for Paints and Chemical Industries (Pachin), which manufactures paints, inks and resins. As with many chemical companies, the manufacturing process is very energy intensive. As part of a government programme to promote renewable energy in Egypt (part-funded by the EU), a technology company in Germany has installed solar collectors at the Pachin facility. These heat the water to 65C, then by using a heat exchanger, recover the heat and use it to keep the fatty acid store at an optimal temperature, saving the company EGP100,000 a year.

In all three cases, there are lessons to be learned.

1. Economic drivers

When asked about the top three benefits from implementing sustainable technology, El Sewedy and Mac Carpet Company both mentioned resource productivity and economic development. Environmental improvement was also a key factor (in the top three for both), but would have been insufficient on its own to motivate the technology change.

2. Skills development

Significant barriers to technology adoption for both companies were the lack of local qualified workers and institutional capacity. To overcome this, the technology provider and the Egyptian National Cleaner Production Centre (ENCPC) had to do training. Ali Abo Sena, an ENCPC representative, said that education was needed not only on the specific technologies, but also more broadly on the seriousness of the water crisis in Egypt.

3. Business continuity

For Pachin, energy consumption is not just an environmental issue, but one that is business critical. In 2013, the Egyptian government announced plans to ration subsidies for petrol and diesel fuel, and hiked fuel prices for heavy industry by 33% at the beginning of the year. Power outages have become more commonplace, resulting in significant disruption to business continuity and loss of economic value.

4. Market potential

The German solar company was prepared to part-fund, install and support the technology transfer to Pachin in Egypt because it enabled them to show a working demonstration of a project in a market that has massive potential for the business. The marketing benefits of sustainable technology in developing countries should not be underestimated.

5. Macro conditions

It is unlikely that the Pachin project would have been embraced so enthusiastically had Egypt not experienced an energy crisis – and accompanying rises in energy costs – in recent years. Although these macro conditions are beyond the control of sustainable technology providers, being sensitive to the opportunities that they can provide can help ensure that the correct markets are chosen for deployment.

6. Financial support

Although long-term economic development is an important benefit of the adoption of sustainable technologies, the high initial cost of the these projects and the relatively long payback period can be a significant barrier. In the case of Pachin, this was overcome by getting financial support for the project (from the EU and the technology provider).

7. Plan for scaling

A lack of qualified workers to install, operate and maintain Pachin’s solar technology was overcome by providing the relevant skills training. However, in order to ensure future scaling, a plan was also devised for moving towards local manufacturing (possibly through a joint-venture).

8. Local adaptation

The ENCPC – working as an intermediary – determined that the German solar technology was over-engineered for the local conditions. In particular, since the technology was made in Germany and had to comply with EU specifications and perform in a region with ambient sunlight, it was found that the insulation materials could be replaced with less expensive substitutes, which performed adequately under local conditions.

Major reductions in the environmental impacts of the chemicals industry – as well as economic benefits – can be achieved by adopting and transferring existing best practice sustainable technologies. The problem, therefore, is not our lack of sustainable technologies, but our ability to finance, incentivise and build capacity for their deployment where they are most needed in the world.

 

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2014) 8 lessons from Egypt in building a cleaner chemicals industry, The Guardian, 8 October 2014.

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Will green chemistry save us from toxification?

Will green chemistry save us from toxification?

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

A swath of green chemistry initiatives could revolutionise the industry but just taking the toxic stuff out isn’t the answer, ingredients and design need to change.

The ‘green’ label has been so abused over the past few decades that it is wise to suspect PR spin (what many call greenwashing). In the case of green chemicals, however, there is at least some serious thinking and extensive application to back up its claims.

Let’s start with what it means. The OECD defines green chemistry as “the design, manufacture and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes”. More specifically, green chemistry should use fewer hazardous and harmful feedstocks and reagents; improve the energy and material efficiency of chemical processes; use renewable feedstocks or wastes in preference to fossil fuels or mined resources; and design chemical products for better reuse or recycling.

Popular categories of green chemistry include biochemical fuel cells, biodegradable packaging, aqueous solvents, white biotechnology (the application of biotechnology for industrial purposes), totally chlorine-free bleaching technologies and green plastics.

One research report suggests that the green chemistry market will grow from $2.8bn in 2011 to $98.5bn by 2020 and will save the industry $65.5bn through direct cost savings and avoided liability for environmental and social impacts.

Others are even more bullish, predicting growth in the bio-based chemicals market from $78bn in 2012 to $198bn by 2017, eventually accounting for 50% of the chemicals market by 2050.

Can we trust green chemistry?

One way to check is the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Safer Product Labeling Program. The Safer Chemical Ingredients List contains chemicals that have been screened to exclude CMRs (carcinogens, reproductive/developmental toxicants and mutagens) and PBTs (persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic compounds) and other chemicals of concern.

At present, about 2,500 products carry the DfE Safer Product Label, with compliance verified by certifiers such as NSF Sustainability.

Beyond this, there are a host of multi-stakeholder initiatives that give further guidance, checks and validity to claims, including Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen, GreenBlue’s CleanGredients and iSustain’s Alliance Assessment.

All these hazardous chemical screening lists may seem like striving for ‘less bad’ rather than ‘good’, but they are also sparking innovations around the world.

Imagine what would happen if we substituted all our fossil fuel derived plastics with Brazilian company Braskem’s sugarcane ethanol derived Bio-PE (polyethylene) and Bio-PP (polypropylene), which removes up to 2.15 metric tons of CO2 for each ton produced.

What if many of the plastics used in the automotive sector were replaced by a new latex-free material produced through a dry powder coating technology by French project Latexfri? Or perhaps we could move to starches created by Ethiopian company YASCAI from enset, a local plant?

Another approach, which UNIDO has been promoting, is to move towards chemical leasing, where chemical manufacturers take responsibility for the safe recovery and disposal of the chemicals they sell. For example, in Colombia, a chemical leasing programme between Ecopetrol and Nalco de Colombia resulted in a reduction of the costs of the treatment process by almost 20%, with savings of $1.8m for Ecopetrol and $463,000 for Nalco.

In Sri Lanka, chemical leasing between Wijeya Newspapers and General Ink resulted in ink savings of around 15,000kg, equivalent to approximately $50,000 per year. In Egypt, Delta Electrical Appliances, Akzo Nobel Powder Coating and Chemetall Italy reduced consumption of chemicals for pre-treatment chemicals by 15-20% and for powder coating by 50% as a result of chemical leasing.

A new era for the chemical industry

Will all of these green chemistry initiatives revolutionise the industry?

Cradle to Cradle, a product certification scheme, hopes to do just that. Co-founder and German chemist, Michael Braungart, told me that in 1987 when he was analysing complex household products, he identified 4,360 different chemicals in a TV set and concluded: “It doesn’t help just to take any toxic stuff out of it”. Rather, products have to be redesigned so that all inputs are either biological nutrients (that can harmlessly biodegrade) or technical nutrients (that can be endlessly and safely recycled).

So does Cradle to Cradle represent the cutting edge of green chemistry? In my book, The Top 50 Sustainability Books, Braungart says: “I’m just talking about good chemistry. Chemistry is not good when the chemicals accumulate in the biosphere; that’s just stupid. Young scientists immediately understand that a chemical is not good when it accumulates in mother’s breast milk. It’s just primitive chemistry. So now we can make far better chemistry, far better material science, far better physics.”

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2014) Will green chemistry save us from toxification? The Guardian, 24 September 2014.

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Why banning dangerous chemicals is not enough

Why banning dangerous chemicals is not enough

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

To feed the world’s chemical addiction, production has had to grow rapidly over the last 40 years. Are companies doing enough to make products and processes safer?

The growth in chemical production in the past 40 years has been nothing short of explosive, with global output of $171bn in 1970 burgeoning to more than $4tn in 2010 (an increase of more than 2,000%). By 2050, the market is expected to expand further to more than $14tn (an increase of more than 250% from 2010), with the BRICS countries dominating and accounting for more than $6tn together ($4tn for China alone).

The message is clear: this is not an industry that is going away. We are all, with our modern lifestyles, totally hooked on chemicals, whether for energy (petrochemicals), colourants (paints, inks, dyes, pigments), food production (fertilisers, pesticides), health (medicines, soaps, detergents) or beauty (perfumes, cosmetics).

Yet, like all drugs, chemicals have some serious side effects. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the chemical industry causes around a million deaths and 21m disability adjusted life years (DALYs) globally every year (based on 2004 data). DALYs are a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.

The main cause of these serious health impacts are acute poisoning , occupational exposure and lead in the environment. What’s more, these WHO figures are almost certainly an underestimate, since they exclude (due to incomplete data) chronic consumer exposure to chemicals and chronic exposure to pesticides and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.

So here is the dilemma: chemicals are harming people – and even killing some of them – yet because of their benefits and the world’s addiction, they cannot be eliminated, even if the renewable energy and organic farming sectors continue their boom of recent years. Taking this as a starting point, the next question becomes: what has the chemical industry done to make its products and processes safer?

The industry has a self-regulatory programme called Responsible Care, which was created in 1985. According to the International Council of Chemical Associations’ (ICCA) decennial report on progress in 2012, 85% of the world’s leading global chemical companies have already signed up to its Global Charter. The ICCA can show significant improvements since 2002 in fatalities, injuries, carbon intensity and transportation incidents (others like water consumption, energy use and total carbon emissions are still heading in the wrong direction).

All this is part of ICCAs contribution to the UN’s Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which aims to achieve “sound chemical management” and to “minimise significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health” by 2020. That sounds good. But is it working? The data suggests we have a long way to go.

For example, in North America alone, 4.9m metric tons of chemicals are released annually into the environment or disposed of, according to 2009 figures. This includes nearly 1.5m metric tons of chemicals that are persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic; more than 756,000 metric tons of known or suspected carcinogens; and nearly 667,000 metric tons of chemicals that are considered reproductive or developmental toxicants.

Besides the health impacts of these emissions, the disruptive effects of chemical pollution on ecosystems also have significant economic consequences. The cost to the global economy of chemical pollution has been estimated at $546bn. This is projected to rise to $1.9tn by 2050, or 1.2% of global GDP. 57% of these externalities are associated with listed companies and their supply chains, and $314bn can be attributed to the largest 3,000 public companies in the world.

Scary numbers, but the chemicals sector says everything is under control. They are aware of the problems and are dealing with them, multilaterally and as a sector, through a plethora of initiatives – such as the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, the US Toxic Release Inventory and the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals programme. The ICCA’s Chemicals Portal also offers free public access to product stewardship information. To date, product safety summaries are available for close to 3,500 chemicals.

And besides these collective efforts, most large companies now also have lists of chemicals they ban and those they prefer, such as Nike’s Considered Chemistry, Boots’ Priority Substances List, SC Johnson’s Greenlist and Sony’s Green Partners Standards. However, the issue is that these are defensive actions, a bit like trying to lock up a fierce lion in a cage, rather than taming it – or better still, exchanging it for a pet cat or dog.

Can the chemical sector ever be sustainable? The answer is maybe. The big leap forward – with a tantalising promise of not only making chemicals safer or ‘less bad’, but potentially harmless or even ‘good’ – is the emerging green chemistry industry, which I will explore in the next article.

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.kaleidoscopefutures.com”]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2014) Why banning dangerous chemicals is not enough. The Guardian, 16 September 2014.

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