Going further to reduce our environmental footprint

Over the last 30 years, the petrochemical industry has set out to mitigate the effects of climate change and minimise its environmental footprint.  It has made notable progress and continues to strive to reduce it further.  The European chemical industry as a whole has made dramatic reductions of its CO2 emissions, effectively more than halving them between 1990 and 2013 (-58%).

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Key to the sector’s environmental strategy is reducing its energy requirements, in particular the energy intensity levels.  By 2013, energy intensity -energy consumption per unit of production- in the chemical industry, including pharmaceuticals, was 55.4 % lower than in 1990.

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Managing water more effectively requires a coordinated approach

Water is vital and in a number of European regions, the balance between water availability and demand is becoming strained.  Water is not only used for drinking and sanitation but is also an important component in industry.  Water is required to produce energy and water uses large amounts of energy in its supply and transmission systems.  With a move towards a bio-based economy, demand for water will only increase.  Many of the current waste water treatment systems are unsustainable.  The chemical industry is one of the largest users of fresh water and is subsequently also a leader in water treatment materials, technologies and conservation initiatives with its E4Water concept.  

The E4Water initiative aims to decouple economic growth from an increase in use of water.  It develops, tests and validates new integrated approaches, methodologies and process technologies for water management within the chemical industry and also investigates how these approaches could be applied across other sectors, for example, farming and manufacturing.  The objective is to reduce water usage by 20-40%, waste water production by 30-70% and energy use by 15-40%.  Contributing to this initiative are large players in the chemical sector, EU water companies and research and development centres from a number of universities active in water management. Progress in protecting aquatic ecosystems

The chart below illustrates that organics in waste water generated by the EU chemicals industry fell by 46% from 2004 to 2009.  It measures chemical oxygen demand (COD) which is the potential of chemical emissions to water to remove dissolved oxygen that would otherwise support aquatic life.   The E4Water concept aims to continue to reduce water stress to aquatic ecosystems by decreasing the required uptake of fresh water combined with a reduction in pollutants released into the environment

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Enhanced process efficiency drives energy savings

In order to create products, there is a minimum energy expenditure requirement that will always exist, regardless of process efficiency.  One of the ways that the sector is attempting to counterbalance even this reduced energy spend is by ensuring it extracts full value from the energy it uses. Essentially, the petrochemical sector is continuing to pursue one of its core strategies of “doing more with less” and one way is by operating closed-loop value chains which means that a by-product from one process becomes the raw material for another. 
Closed-loop industry typically works in a number of ways, for example:

  • The waste from a process is simply re-used and there is no need for processing or modification prior to its re-use.
  • The material might need to be recycled or reprocessed, but once it has been modified, it can be used for the same purpose, for example, plastic bottles.
  •  Recovered material is modified and reused in an entirely different process. 

The closed-loop system has a number of benefits such as reducing the amount of ‘new’ raw material required and facilitating waste disposal by turning waste into a useable material. 

Process efficiency not only makes good environmental sense, but also economic sense.  For the EU petrochemical industry to be in a position to compete with other regions, it will need to continue to refine its production processes to ensure optimisation of efficiency in energy use.  Regions outside Europe have an advantage as they benefit from lower feedstock and energy prices in turn making it easier for petrochemical producers to offer more competitive pricing for their products.  The European petrochemical sector can only partially claw back savings through increased efficiency and is required to urgently continue its investment in innovating enhanced energy efficiency measures.