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Resource efficiency

Transition towards a circular economy

Source: VITO Energiebalans Vlaanderen; DG Statistics; calculation essenscia

In a circular economy, resources are no longer wasted, but reused and recirculated as much as feasible and sustainable, thus minimising the use of virgin non-renewable resources. In the chemical, plastics and life sciences industry fossil resources (fossil fuel, natural gas, naphtha,…) are traditionally the main feedstock for organic products. These resources are used for manufacturing substances and fuels within the sector for a wide array of applications ranging from active molecules in medicines, paints, detergents and various types of polymer used in automotive, construction, medical equipment, packaging, etc. In Belgium in 2019 98% of petroleum (mainly naphtha) and 37% of the natural gas consumption of the sector were converted into higher value materials.

The sector acknowledges the need to move towards the use of alternative feedstocks and is investing in alternatives for fossil feedstock such as biomass, chemical recycling as well as carbon capture and utilization (CCU), closing the loop for CO2 by converting it into a feedstock. However, as these feedstocks and technologies are still emerging, there are currently no reliable indicators available to quantify these evolutions in feedstock mix in the Belgian chemical industry. On EU level, the share of biobased chemicals compared to overall chemical production was estimated at 3% in a 2019 JRC study, mainly using vegetable oil, wood or sugar/starch as feedstock depending on product category1. And on average in 2018, the use of recyclates from postconsumer waste by the Belgian plastic converters is estimated at 6% of the total amount of plastic raw materials they consume according to a study realised by Agoria and essenscia . For the moment, those alternative feedstocks are not available in sufficient quantities to meet the high demand for chemicals driven by global rising demand in chemicals, which, according to a 2019 report, was forecasted to double by 20302, mainly due to a growing world population living at higher living standards.

In the meantime, we use the amount of fossil resources used as feedstock in the chemicals industry per ton of produced product as a proxy indicator for its resource efficiency. The indicator shows that production rises faster than the use of fossil feedstock, indicating an increase in resource efficiency.

Companies are continuously investing in innovation to advance in alternative feedstocks and to further increase performance further in more efficient processes, helping to reduce the sector’s material footprint. This is reflected in the strategic priorities of the spearhead clusters Catalisti in Flanders and its Moonshots program, and Biowin & Greenwin in the Walloon region, which stimulate collaborative innovation projects in these fields.

Also, the sector is a strong leader in industrial symbiosis, sharing, re-using and exchanging resources between chemical companies. Indeed, for the capital-intensive chemicals, plastics and life sciences industry, the optimisation of manufacturing processes has always been a priority. The Belgian integrated chemicals cluster is a prime example of this, characterised by its high interconnectivity, in which side-streams of one production unit are used as raw materials for others, and where energy is recuperated and utilities are often shared to increase material and energy efficiency.

  1. Spekreijse, J., Lammens, T., Parisi, C., Ronzon, T., Vis, M., Insights into the European market of bio-based chemicals. Analysis based on ten key product categories, EUR 29581 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2019, ISBN 978-92-79-98420-4, doi:10.2760/549564, JRC112989.
  2. Global Chemicals Outlook II: “The size of the global chemical industry exceeded United States dollars 5 trillion in 2017. It is projected to double by 2030. Consumption and production are rapidly increasing in emerging economies.”