Research Finds Only 1 % of Common Chemicals Widely Produced is Sustainable

Published on: 07 February 2022
by KnowESG
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A Brief Summary

A study led by Gonzalo Guillén Gosálbez, professor of chemical systems engineering at ETH Zurich and Javier Pérez-Ramírez, professor of catalysis engineering, appeared in the journal Green Chemistry, finds that most of the widely produced common chemicals used fossil raw material and consumed more natural resources than the Erath can provide in the long term.

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The researchers have extensively carried out the study and calculated in absolute figures the extent of chemical production with no due regard to mother nature, and the results are staggering. Additionally, the research finds that the new method also takes a lot of land and freshwater consumption.

The chemical industry uses an assessment method known as life-cycle analysis, which is at present the standard practice for sustainability assessment in the chemical field, focusing on calculating a given product's carbon footprint, right from raw material to disposal. However, it is of limited use in assessing global impacts on natural ecosystems.

According to Pérez-Ramírez, such a traditional life-cycle only takes into account CO2 emissions. "Climate change isn't the only problem", he says. "The focus of ours should not be only on solutions that cut down carbon emissions".

The two researchers aim to draft a comprehensive life-cycle assessment for chemicals and establish a direct link to the Earth's ecology budget. Their calculation has a base on planetary boundaries, which describes the impact of humans on nine key Earth-system processes, for instance, biodiversity loss and changes in land use.

The scientists calculated, in their study, how the global production of a total of 492 chemicals exceeds seven of these limits. To find out, the researchers link existing data and accounting models on raw material procurement, the supply chain, and several production steps at a global level.

They found that more than 99% of the chemicals studied exceed at least one of the planetary boundaries. Only three of the chemicals are sustainable, according to this new method.