Hope Lies with EU

C&I Issue 1, 2017

Plastics recycling and the use of hydrogen for clean energy were among the key sustainability issues for chemicals players discussed in Davos.

At the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, in January, representatives of two European chemical-related segments drove sustainability signposts into the snow.  Neither of the two projects introduced is peculiar to Europe – both plastics recycling and the use of hydrogen for clean energy are truly global concerns. But now that climate change sceptics have a firm grip on the US government, the ball for protecting the planet seems to have firmly landed in Europe’s court.

Four days before Donald Trump’s inauguration on 20 January, when his newly minted administration deleted all references to global warming from the White House website, an initiative representing 40 – mainly European – plastics producers and processors outlined to the WEF the first conclusions drawn from an exhaustive analysis of the sustainable use of plastic packaging.

Presented to the public in 2016 by UK-based think-tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action calls for a quantum leap in recycling rates for plastic packaging to 70% from 14% currently. Joining the foundation’s principal, Dame Ellen MacArthur – the noted sailor-turned environmental advocate – CEOs of leading plastics producers such as Borealis, Novamont and Dow Chemical were on board in Davos to promote the project, which parallels many of the European Commission’s Circular Economy proposals.  Targets include replacing single-use plastic carrier bags with reusable bags, charging deposits for single-trip containers and increased re-use of rigid packaging in shipping – issues already addressed by some European governments. 

The Foundation asserts that 50% of plastics packaging now in circulation could be profitably recycled, given improvements in design and waste management, but without fundamental redesign, much of the remainder is destined for landfill or incineration. While forecasting a potential €900bn economic boost to Europe if recycling targets were met, MacArthur said she saw ‘no reason why such business investment cannot be extended globally.’

 Even if most circular economy discussions revolve around new uses for old plastics, the chemical industry also can make an important contribution, by recovering carbon-containing waste and in the mid-term using hydrogen from renewable energies in combination with CO2 for basic chemicals production, said BASF CEO Kurt Bock, speaking to the press in December 2016 as president of Germany’s Verband der Chemischen Industrie. Sustainability has become the comprehensive guiding principle and the concept for the future in the industry’s actions and is reflected in the VCI’s own sustainability initiative, Chemie3. 

Picking up the same theme, another industry grouping – the recently reconstituted Hydrogen Council –  used the Swiss forum to spotlight plans for the circular use of its own renewable resources.  Representing global revenue of €1.07 trillion and 1.7m employees, this initiative is spearheaded by the industrial gases industry’s two market leaders, France-based Air Liquide and Germany-headquartered Linde, in partnership with automakers such as Germany’s Volkswagen and Japan’s Toyota. 

Leveraging their own hydrogen-based products, the Council’s 13 members, which also include energy and transport specialists, have committed to work towards holding global warming to 2° Celsius as set down in the 2016 Paris Agreement. As key to the transition to renewable energy, the companies pointed out that along with being a versatile energy carrier the element is also a ‘promising source of clean fuel’ as it does not release any CO2 at the point of use.

In Davos, the companies confirmed their ambition to accelerate their estimated €1.4bn annual investment in development and commercialisation of products for the hydrogen-based transport and fuel cell sectors. The two European gases leaders have already spent heavily on their own hydrogen networks, and have launched the first products. To enhance public awareness, the Council said it will work with ‘a number of key stakeholders such as policy makers, business and hydrogen players, international agencies and civil society.’

Thanks to substantial progress in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies in recent years, the 'energy carrier of the future has finally become available,’ Linde CEO Aldo Belloni told the Swiss gathering. ‘It is now up to us – the industry, policy makers and customers – to make full use of the potential these climate-friendly technologies can offer.’  Air Liquide CEO Benoît Potier, calling the Paris accord ‘a significant step in the right direction,’ added that ‘business action is also needed to make such a pledge a reality’. The gases giants said the industry needs governments to back hydrogen with large-scale infrastructure investment schemes. 

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