Long March Toward Sustainability Begins

Companies consider reducing carbon footprint only one of the key steps necessary for sustainability.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Lifecycle analysis (LCA) promises to play an increasingly important role in decision-making in the chemical industry. Already, major companies like Dow, Air Products and BASF rely on LCA to evaluate the sustainability of their products and processes.

LCA involves an integrated evaluation from raw materials production through manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of products, as well as any other issues caused by a product's existence. The key point is to remember that LCA is a continuum, says Dr. Anne Wallin, LCA expert with Dow, Horgen, Switzerland. It clearly fits in well with the Midland, Mich.-based company's ambitious sustainability goals (see, "We Can Learn a Lot from Dow Chemical").

"You have green LCA methodologies and others that are semi-quantitative, while others can be quite qualitative. We have developed a variety of proprietary tools, for example, the sustainable chemistry index, an R&D footprint tool, and others specific to certain businesses and sectors. In general the tools allow for more estimates — a relative change in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for example — or qualitative questions around social indicators like the ability to provide products to developing markets," Wallin notes.

LCA studies are notorious for being non-intuitive, she cautions. "You could work to lower the carbon footprint of a laundry detergent, but LCAs have shown that the carbon footprint is related to the hot water in the use phase, which drove the innovation for cold water washing in laundry care. Or you make a dramatic improvement in GHGs but have significant increases in water use or eutrophication. The power of LCA is that people view things in a more holistic, systems perspective which allows for better decisions."

Such a systems perspective led to Dow and BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, receiving in June a 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award for their joint development of a new hydrogen peroxide to propylene oxide (HPPO) technology.

A joint study using BASF's eco-efficiency analysis tool found many significant benefits with the new HPPO process: 70–80% wastewater reduction; an about 35% cut in energy use; 25% lower capital requirements; and a smaller physical footprint than the existing process. The new process was commercialized at BASF's Antwerp, Belgium, site in 2008. A second plant, at Map Ta Phut, Thailand, is scheduled to begin production in 2011.

"Note that this is a joint development with BASF. This is another key part of LCA: to realize the best advantage you really need collaborations like this because you need access to all the available data," stresses Wallin.

Dow is developing another joint development in Brazil to design and build the first world-scale integrated facility to produce polyethylene from sugar. The proposed development will use ethanol derived from sugar cane, an annually renewable resource, to make ethylene, thereby producing significantly less carbon dioxide than the traditional manufacturing process.

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