Petrochemical industry faces challenge of becoming more ‘green’

Amid a wave of plastic bans and rising concern over climate change the industry makes an effort to become more environmentally friendly.

Layers of ethylene vinyl acetate are used to bind and protect components of solar panels. Image courtesy of Andreas160578/Pixabay.

Petrochemical companies across the Americas face the challenge of trying to reduce their carbon footprint by actions like cutting emissions or promoting recycling.

The industry is also making an effort to emphasize the role plastics play in harnessing renewable energy, as well as efficiently managing resources.

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the last two decades have shown the capacity of the petrochemical industry in the United States to cut harmful emissions that threaten climate.

The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC) claims it was the Canadian industry that pioneered environmental efforts in 1985 through a Responsible Care program that later spread worldwide.

Latin America’s biggest chemical company Braskem has for several years offered plant-based polyethylene amid concerns about the climate impact from hydrocarbon extraction.

U.S. chemical petrochemical past environmental efforts

“Our industry is committed to managing energy use in our companies and manufacturing facilities,” an ACC spokesperson said by email in reply to a Petrochemical Update inquiry.

“Since 1992, the energy efficiency of ACC member companies has increased by 19%, while greenhouse gas intensity, pounds of carbon dioxide-equivalent emitted per pound of production, has fallen by over 24%,” the spokesperson added.

According to the ACC, a study commissioned by the chemical industry showed that for every unit of greenhouse gas emitted by chemical companies, more than two units of emission savings are enabled in other industries.

“Chemistry is the power behind many low carbon, renewable energy and energy efficient technologies,” the ACC said.

Insulation, sealants and wraps help improve energy efficiency in homes, offices and factories, it added.

In addition, lightweight plastic auto parts increase fuel efficiency. Also, chemistry innovations enable energy storage like solar cells and wind turbines, the ACC said.

Commitment to future improvement

“The chemical industry is committed to continued progress in our own companies and facilities,” the ACC spokesperson said regarding future efforts to cut emissions and reducing waste.

The ACC’s industry-wide sustainability principles include a commitment to “achieving measurable reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacture and distribution of products.

The ACC said it also supports “efforts to reduce and manage waste so that oceans and water sources are not polluted with mishandled plastic or other materials.”

To meet this goal, members are “promoting innovations in product design, reuse, repurposing and recycling to extend the useful life and value of all products.”

The goal of the ACC is that 100% of plastics packaging would be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040, it said.

Yet, as evidenced by over $200 billion in investment announced or contemplated by the U.S. petrochemical industry, much of it to turn natural gas liquids into plastic, the industry anticipates high demand for chemical products would likely continue to increase.

“A growing global population, rising living standards, and an enhanced focus on sustainability will result in even greater demand for chemistry products in the decades to come,” it said.

Government policies and private-sector practices “must recognize and support our industry’s ability to deliver innovative materials, products, and technologies to meet these needs,” it said.

Canadian response to the ‘green’ challenge

Canada’s chemistry sector “has reduced its CO2 emissions by 65% on an absolute basis since 1992,” according to the CIAC’s website.

According to the CIAC, Canadian petrochemical companies help the environment by producing goods that help create ‘greener buildings” thanks to materials that go into insulation and reflective roofs.

The CIAC also notes that chemical fertilizers improve crops while plastics used in food packaging help reduce waste.

Like counterparts in the United States and Mexico, the Canadian industry is promoting long-term programs that aim to increase recycling. These initiatives have been preceded by efforts in different countries, at state and city levels, to ban plastics.

The CIAC has said it opposes such bans, instead favoring long-term initiatives to increase recycling. CIAC members set targets that 100% of plastics packaging would be re-used, recycled, or recovered by 2040, it said mirroring the ACC plan.

“CIAC and its members support and have been actively engaged in the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment’s Strategy and Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste,” it said.

South of the border

The Mexican National Association for the Chemical Industry (known as Aniq for its Spanish acronym) also favors similar long-term recycling programs. It announced its own version of the initiative in December 2019.

The Mexican chemical industry also wants to get the country’s Senate to take actions to limit the capacity of local and regional governments to impose plastic bans. It wants cities to invest in recycling infrastructure.

Mexico’s biggest cities banned single-use plastic bans starting in 2020, leading Aniq to warn thousands would lose employment.

Latin America’s biggest chemical company Braskem has been producing ‘green’ ethylene based on sugar-cane for several years. After a $290 million investment it has capacity installed in Brazil to produce 200,000 tonnes annually.

Braskem’s green ethylene results in products including bags, caps, as well as both rigid and flexible packaging.

Scientists, however, have said that the so-called ‘green’ plastic based on agriculture presents also challenges including increased demand for fertilizers and pesticides.

There are also concerns that some of the same problems of hydrocarbon-based plastic, such as water pollution, remain. In addition, diversion of agriculture land for renewables to replace hydrocarbons has also raised questions.

A request for Braskem’s press agency sent on Feb. 4 to help obtain comment regarding its claimed bioplastic leadership as well as to learn more about its ‘green’ polyethylene failed to obtain commentary that could meet a Feb. 11 deadline.

By Renzo Pipoli