In the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors everything revolves around molecules. The raw materials, fuels and plastics produced by the sector are – often unseen – incorporated into all aspects of our daily lives. From the paint on the wall to the painkillers in the medicine cabinet, from the cyclist’s helmet to the solar panels on the roof. Consumers are often unaware of the crucial role that chemistry plays in the familiar objects they use day after day.
The chemical sector directly or indirectly contributes to almost all the material that our society carries, protects, nourishes and transports. This is also apparent from a report of the European Commission, which states that no less than 95 percent of all products and goods in Europe are related to chemicals or chemical processes.
Chemistry is therefore an industry that is strongly anchored in all parts of our society and connected to just about all other economic sectors. This means that chemistry is often at the start of very complex value chains. They can be local, but also European or even global.
The chemical and life sciences sector is therefore an important lever to make the transition to a circular economy a success. This is a great opportunity, but it is also a great responsibility to help lay the foundations for the circular economy of the future.
We are in the aftermath of a linearly structured economy. We discard products and materials at the end of their useful life. It then becomes waste that we recycle in the best case, but still dump or incinerate far too often. In this way, many valuable substances and materials are lost.
A circular economy is organised differently. Waste becomes raw material and materials circulate in a closed cycle model in which they are re-used as long as possible and their social and economic value is maximised. Thanks to that circularity, fewer virgin raw materials are needed and that is a benefit for the environment.
For example, production waste from agriculture or the food industry can be used as a bio-based raw material in the chemical sector, while chemicals can be recovered even more and better from the waste flows of other sectors thanks to new technologies. In a circular economy, companies in different branches of industry therefore become even more dependent on each other than before, because the end product or residual product of one is the raw material for another.
Already in the nineteenth century, materials and energy cycles were included in the floor plan of chemical installations. Since the oil crises of the seventies and eighties of the last century, the use of residual heat and residual products has become an industrial reflex within the same chemical company but also between various neighbouring companies.
A circular economy goes even further. Where industrial symbiosis takes place between companies in often clearly defined industrial zones, the circular economy aims to encompass the entire economy and go so far as to include the many products that we all use every day. This has a very broad impact on purchasing procedures, logistics processes, financing models and recycling methods, among other things.
Circular entrepreneurship starts with circular thinking. In the design phase of a product or a process, consideration must be given to how the product can be given a second life at the end of its life cycle, or how the process can be as efficient as possible. Therein lies the strength of chemistry because, like nothing else, it holds knowledge about molecules and materials, about the chemical and biotechnological processes of creation and transformation.
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For biodegradable materials and molecule, biodegradability is important when chemicals come into contact with the environment when they are being used. For example, for lubricating oil from chainsaws in forestry, water-soluble cosmetics or sutures after an operation.
When inventing new molecules, systematic screenings are done to select substances that pose no risk for workers and consumers, for animals and plants. Safety is rooted in the DNA of the chemical and life sciences sector and forms a permanent point of attention in every innovation process.
The very fact that the benefits for society of a potentially dangerous substance are sometimes so important – such as with certain catalysts that yield huge returns in specific production processes, or which are necessary to produce hydrogen or to develop new medicines – makes further research worthwhile, even if a particular substance has intrinsically hazardous properties.
In the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, toxic or corrosive substances are often used that can be very hazardous. But that danger depends on how great the risk is that something or someone is exposed to it. Compare it with a cobra. If that life-threatening venomous snake suddenly crawls around your living room, that is a big risk. If the animal in the zoo is in a secure cage, that risk is practically zero. It is the same in the chemical and life sciences. Hazardous chemicals can be used safely as long as the risks are manageable and managed.
The European legislation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) is there to optimally protect people and the environment against the possible risks that chemical substances can pose. This not only concerns chemicals that are used in industrial production processes, but also substances that we use in our daily lives.
This European regulation obliges companies to thoroughly test health and safety risks of chemicals before they can be manufactured, placed on the market or used in production processes or products. The data from more than 22,000 substances are publicly available on the website of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). With almost 4,000 registered substances, Belgium is among the leaders in Europe.
In this way, REACH ensures that Europe sets the tone worldwide in terms of the safety and circularity of chemical substances. However, the system still does not function to best advantage. Frictions often arise at the interface between scientific insight, industrial innovation and political decision-making. This can sometimes lead to openly questioning decisions by recognised European agencies, after which individual member states go their separate ways and the same rules do not apply everywhere in Europe, hampering the single market.
This undermines a system for which we as a welfare region are rightly envied. A stable legal policy framework that maps risks and manages them appropriately is continually evolving and being refined. This is the only way the chemical sector can contribute actively through its molecules and materials to sustainable products that retain their value for a long time in a circular economy and that can be re-used after their first use, whether or not in the same application.
Assessing the safety and sustainability of these innovations is no easy matter; moreover, new technologies are developed. Luckily, current legislative frameworks are built to assess the risks and uncertainties of new products although legislative integration and coordination could still be improved. Transparent procedures and clear decision-making are a must, as is social support for what constitutes an acceptable level of risk.
In addition, it is essential to be able to make the right choices in a scientifically based way. This complex assessment extends across various policy areas. This requires reliable and comparable life cycle analyses, multidisciplinary collaboration and even the application of digitisation and artificial intelligence to be able to analyse more data faster and with increased accuracy.
All this illustrates the need for the right talents and skills to work on circular and meaningful solutions within and outside the sector. Chemistry is at the start of many value chains and is therefore ideally placed to help close the circle of the circular economy. But we are not there yet with a handful of circular products. The circular economy is by definition a cooperation model that is still too often hampered by legal thresholds in existing (linear) rules.
Moreover, a circular economy is only likely to be successful if it is competitive and profitable. It must have the support of the financial sector and governments for more investments and smoother delivery of permits for circular projects whilst making no concessions on safety and environmental standards. The government must also guarantee stricter enforcement to ensure that imported goods meet the high European safety and quality requirements. In this way we prevent the circular economy within Europe from being disrupted by inferior material flows that hamper reused and recycling of material streams.
The success factor of the chemical and life sciences lies in its extensive and varied range of products that guarantee well-being and quality of life. Integrating social added value into a circular model must become the basic motivation for all forms of entrepreneurship. Sustainable chemistry is one that fits within the planetary boundaries and can thus provide lasting prosperity.