As consumers around the world increasingly focus on ways they can help alleviate climate change, manufacturers (and their suppliers) are exploring myriad options for making their processes and products more sustainable—and thus more attractive to these eco-conscious end users. Suppliers of adhesives and sealants are certainly no exception. Common approaches in our industry include replacing petroleum-based raw materials with bio-based alternatives, improving a product’s recyclability or compostability, and developing solutions to help industries attain climate-related legislative requirements (e.g., lightweight structural adhesives for the automotive sector), among many others.
The term carbon footprint is generally used to identify the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and other materials, that an entity produces. We all have a carbon footprint, as individuals, companies, and even the industry as a whole. It is important to keep in mind that carbon is not the enemy, in and of itself. As one of Earth’s most common elements, carbon is fairly ubiquitous in the chemical industry, certainly in organic chemistry. The key is to explore more sustainable options for our carbon use.
Finding ways to reduce GHG emissions levels equates to a smaller carbon footprint, which ultimately results in less negative impact on the climate. The concept of renewable carbon (simply put, carbon derived from renewable sources) is particularly exciting because it offers multiple avenues for GHG emissions reductions.
Renewable carbon can come from three main sources, explains Michael Costello, group director of Environment, Social and Governance for Stahl: biomass and bio-based raw materials, carbon capture (CO2 that is captured during a process and converted to a usable raw material), and recycled materials such as plastics. Though the chemical sector has identified these sources as viable options to replace traditional petroleum-based materials, much development work remains to be done.
“In many cases, we do have some alternatives. Those are the materials that we are working hard on and using,” Costello says. “But there’s still so much to do because some of the raw materials that we and all chemical companies use just don’t have those alternatives ready or they are not developed. And even if they are developed, they’re not yet scaled up to a size that can be properly sourced.”
Taking the Initiative
The chemical sector is taking action to identify and develop sustainable, renewable carbon-based solutions. In September 2020, the Germany-based nova-Institute brought together 11 chemical companies to create the Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI). The founding companies include: Beiersdorf (Germany), Cosun Beet Co. (The Netherlands), Covestro (Germany), Henkel (Germany), LanzaTech (U.S.), Lenzing (Austria), NESTE (Finland), SHV Energy (The Netherlands), Stahl (The Netherlands), Unilever (UK), and UPM (Finland).
The initiative’s stated goal “is to support and speed up the transition from fossil carbon to renewable carbon for all organic chemicals and materials.” According to the RCI, it will take a three-pronged approach by:
- Building cross-industry platforms that illustrate practical use in specific applications
- Promoting changes in legislation, taxation, and regulation
- Increasing awareness and understanding
“It’s an awareness initiative, to explain what renewable carbon is, to explain to the world that, yes, we can get our chemical raw materials from sources which do not deplete fossil fuels,” Costello explains. “But we need to accelerate that research so that the change can happen faster, because we’re running out of time.”
As awareness grows along the supply chain and more companies join initiatives like the RCI, development projects and new opportunities will expand apace. In turn, the resulting renewable raw materials options will enable adhesives and sealants producers to reduce their carbon footprint and offer customers more eco-friendly options that will help appeal to consumers while reducing or even eliminating negative environmental impacts.
“This is about a fundamental change in the chemical industry,” said Michael Carus, CEO of nova-Institute and head of the RCI, when the initiative was launched. “Just as the energy industry is being converted to renewable energies, so renewable carbon will become the new foundation of the future chemical and material industry. The initiative starts today and will be visibly present from now on. We want to accelerate the change.”