While manufactured chemicals have helped to improve human health, food security, productivity and quality of life worldwide, sound management and innovations in chemistry are essential for sustainable development. This was the central message of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acting executive director and assistant secretary-general Joyce Msuya when the issue came under the spotlight last month at the fourth assembly of the UNEP, held in Nairobi, Kenya.
The gathering emphasised the need for a transition to a “more circular global economy, in which goods can be reused or repurposed and kept in circulation for as long as possible”, contributing to sustainable consumption and production.
UNEP Southern Africa regional coordinator Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga previously outlined how the effective and efficient use of chemicals could provide a significant developmental boost and support economic growth. Nevertheless, such an approach also requires commercial, social and governmental practices, capacity and capabilities to support sustainable management and benefits from these chemicals.
Sustainable development, which aims to decouple economic growth and the intensive use of natural resources, cannot be achieved without an effective responsible chemical management programme, Kinuthia-Njenga states.
“Transitioning industries and economies from a linear approach to a regenerative, or circular, approach is focused on the most effective and efficient use of natural resources to derive maximum value from chemicals and ensure that they are productively used repeatedly,” she says.
Consumption and production of chemicals are rapidly increasing in emerging economies. Global supply chains and the trade of chemicals and products are growing and becoming increasingly complex.
Growth patterns also place an increasing chemicals-management burden on developing countries and countries with economies in transition, particularly the least-developed and small-island developing States, which present special difficulties in meeting this challenge.
“As a result, fundamental changes are needed in the way that societies manage chemicals,” states international policy framework the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which derives from resolutions taken at International Conferences on Chemicals Management.
The global chemicals industry’s production capacity, excluding pharmaceuticals, almost doubled from 2000 to 2017, from about 1.2-billion tons a year to 2.3-billion tons a year. When pharmaceuticals are included, global sales totalled $5.68-trillion in 2017, making it the world’s second-largest manufacturing industry. Global production is projected to double by 2030.
Risk reduction, including preventing, reducing, remediating, minimising and eliminating risks, is key for sound chemicals management throughout the entire life cycle, the SAICM acknowledges.
Sustainable supply chain management, innovations in green and sustainable chemistry and adopting common approaches to chemicals management can reduce the risks to human health, ecosystems and economies, adds Msuya.
“We cannot live without chemicals. Nor can we live with the consequences of their bad management,” she says.
Further, South African Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane says safe and productive use of chemicals is necessary to achieve the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
“The SAICM initiative speaks to regional and national development agendas. Environment-friendly chemicals management has been linked to the achievement of sustainable development goals. Research and monitoring are essential to achieve and assess progress,” she says.
However, if systems on the ground, such as municipal and spatial development frameworks, are lacking or poorly adhered to, it becomes significantly more difficult to manage the production, distribution, management, reclamation and reuse or disposal of chemicals, as well as realising developmental benefits from the use of chemicals, says Kinuthia-Njenga.
A solution is only as good as the will to implement it. Now, more than ever, key influencers such as investors, producers, retailers, citizens, academics and Ministers must act, emphasises Msuya.
“If countries deliver on all that was agreed on [at the fourth UNEP assembly] and implement the resolutions, we could take a big step towards a new world order where we no longer grow at the expense of nature but instead see people and the planet thrive together,” she says.
Significant resources can be saved by sharing knowledge on chemicals management instruments more widely and enhancing mutual acceptance of approaches ranging from chemical hazard assessment to alternatives assessment, states the ‘UNEP Global Chemical Outlook 2019’ report.
“The private sector has made considerable efforts to promote chemical safety through voluntary programmes and initiatives such as product stewardship and the chemicals industry’s Responsible Care programme, started in 1988 by US industry body the American Chemistry Council,” the SAICM framework highlights.
Political volatility can pose a risk to responsible chemicals management, which is why the voluntary compliance approach of the Responsible Care programme is in place: to ensure that management practices are continuously advanced and modernised across the chemicals sector, American Chemistry Council president and CEO Cal Dooley says.
The programme places a key emphasis on the gathering and sharing of information and practices, including providing publicly available information on the chemicals industry, in line with the commitments of the SAICM framework.
The SAICM says that knowledge, information and public awareness are basic needs for decisionmaking for the sound management of chemicals, including products and articles containing chemicals. There is also a lack of clear, accessible, timely and appropriate information on chemicals for ready use by local populations.
Dooley highlights that the Responsible Care programme collects data on the environmental, health and safety practices and metrics of the industry and shares it, which also serves as a sound scientific grounding, boosting the credibility of the industry.
“The industry, thereby, demonstrates that it is alive to concerns of constituents and citizens, and is responding to environmental, social and economic challenges.”
The Responsible Care programme also provides broader technical information on, for example, measures that can reduce energy and water intensity, and reduce or eliminate the release of chemicals. Its continuous improvement approach provides a direct benefit for companies’ bottom lines, says Dooley.
The programme, which has been adopted by 68 countries, including South Africa, is continuously adapted to meet increasingly complex and interrelated concerns to enable the industry to realise its commitment to advancing sustainability.
“Demonstrating our commitment to workplace diversity and inclusivity, the ability to operate according to ethical business standards and practices, and providing a roadmap for the industry and the public enhance the perceptions and sustainability of the industry,” says Dooley.
Chemicals industry research and the sector’s direct input into discussions about sustainability and recyclability are crucial to underpinning the circular or sustainable use of products that contain chemicals and, hence, support sustainable development, he emphasises.
The UNEP outlook report states that technological information, the results of hazard and risk assessments, socio- economic methodologies and the tools to develop and apply sciencebased standards, harmonised risk assessment and management principles are not available to all, which is why the pace of scientific research in these areas needs to be accelerated.
The draft resolutions adopted by the Environment Ministers at the fourth UNEP assembly included a resolution to promote innovation and knowledge sharing in chemicals and waste management to achieve safer and less toxic material flows to protect human health and the environment.
Governments also committed to advancing sustainable consumption and production patterns, including through the circular economy and other sustainable economic models. Protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development were also identified as essential requirements for sustainable development.
The chemicals industry in the US has become a key driver of broader industrial and manufacturing growth, owing to the competitive advantages provided by affordable feedstock chemicals in the form of natural shale gas and expertise in the industry to capitalise on this. This effectively demonstrates that the industry has a key role to play in sustainable development, says Dooley.
“Remaining competitive is key for the chemicals industry to continue contributing to economic development. The regulatory environment plays a significant role in competitiveness, as does the price of feedstock, labour and distribution,” says local industry body Chemical and Allied Industries Association chairperson Rod Humphris.
The discovery of natural gas reserves off South Africa’s southern coast can prove to be a driver for the growth of the chemicals sector and other industrial sectors, but policy gaps and uncertainty, as well as consistently poor national education outcomes, negatively affect the propensity for investment in these sectors.
However, it is important that the culture of leadership in the industry changes, as its ability to provide leadership is correlated with its economic fortunes and its impact on the world. Industry leaders must respond to challenges in a public and constructive manner, says Dooley.
“As an industry, we have taken, and must continue to take, responsibility to manage environmental and social challenges that the world faces. There is no other industry with the capacity, knowledge and expertise to make as tangible and beneficial an impact,” he concludes.