“Commitment to sustainability cannot waver — no matter what’s happening in the world around us,” stated Mark Vergnano, chairman of the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) board of directors. Vergano’s comment came as part of the ACC’s announcement in early June to update the Responsible Care program, the chemical manufacturing industry’s environmental, health and safety initiative.
Though current supply chain disruptions and fluctuating product demands call for immediate attention, chemical producers can’t afford to pause their efforts to improve sustainability. Groups like ACC and the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) are still calling on the industry to reduce environmental impact and energy consumption and focus on sustainable development. ACC members and plastics producers Dow, LyondellBasell, SABIC and others have publicly renewed their commitments to sustainability.
For example, Dow recently announced aggressive sustainability goals over the next decade, including reducing net annual carbon emissions by 5 million metric tons and investing in technology and partnerships that will allow 1 million metric tons of plastic to be collected, reused or recycled. In addition, Dow reported that by 2035, 100% of its products sold into packaging applications will be reusable or recyclable.
Both Investors and Customers Are Increasing Demands
Investors are increasingly paying attention to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data as well. In a recent interview, Marcie Frost, CEO of CalPERS, America’s largest pension fund, explained that ESG is an important factor in considering investments. “It’s a risk framework – we need to understand the risk that our capital is taking on through the long term and that is through engagement, disclosure and transparency about data; we can make evaluations whether companies are managing their risks appropriately and whether we should be continuing to invest in those companies,” she said. “We want to understand that they’re thinking about the long term and not just the short term.”
With shareholder activism on the rise in recent years, polymer companies need to demonstrate progress toward ESG goals to ensure continued financial support. The good news: There is a substantial market for goods made from recycled plastics. Consumer goods companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and H&M have pledged to boost recycled and reusable content in their packaging. The market for polymer recycling is estimated at $120 billion USD in North America alone, meaning that what is good for the environment is also good for the business on multiple fronts. Here are some ways polymer makers can use digitalization to operate more responsibly and sustainably.
Modeling New Processes
Some polymer makers have begun to recycle materials themselves, while others have opted to work with partners to break down plastic waste. Plastic is either recycled to component materials to make new plastics or used to produce petrochemical feedstocks. Chemical recycling processes offer greater flexibility than many mechanical recycling methods, as they’re more tolerant of contamination. Chemical recycling can also yield polymers identical to the originals, so plastic manufacturers are no longer limited to using recycled material to make less-valuable products. On the mechanical recycling front, new additives and compatibilizers make it easier to blend recycled and virgin polymers.
Whether modeling a chemical recycling process or the process to develop a new product made from recycled materials, process simulation tools allow plants to minimize unwanted byproducts, reduce environmental impact and assess economic feasibility.
Reducing Waste and Optimizing Energy Use
Not only can process simulations help cut down on unwanted byproducts, they can also reduce the number of plant trials for new processes, lessening the amount of off-spec product created. Some chemical companies have used process simulators and multivariate analytics tools to identify the source of quality variations. At the plant and process design stages, companies can focus on developing plants that use energy more efficiently. Reducing energy use delivers capital savings in addition to operational cost savings.
SABIC recently announced that some of the company’s new copolymer grades are saving up to 10% of manufacturing material needs for packaging and up to 15% of production energy. New extrusion polymers have allowed one of SABIC’s global dairy customers to package certain products in 100% renewable materials.
Digitalization offers polymers manufacturers many ways to drive improvements in sustainability. Read this recent white paper to learn more.