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Switch to safer basic chemicals, activists tell industry

Report urges a move away from petrochemicals

by Cheryl Hogue
July 13, 2022


The air stacks and piping of a large chemical production plant.
Credit: Shutterstock
The chemical industry needs to switch from petrochemical building blocks such as methanol to safer, biobased substances, activists say.

The chemical industry needs to switch away from its major building-block petrochemicals so it can transform into a sector that no longer harms people’s health or the environment, according to a July 13 report from activists.

Lower-hazard substances that are not derived from fossil fuels should replace benzene, butadiene, ethylene, methanol, propylene, toluene, and xylene, says the report by the group Coming Clean. It is a US-based network of community activists, environmental justice organizations, and policy, science, and market experts.

“The petrochemical sector’s reliance on fossil-fuel feedstocks and manufacturing processes that have evolved little in a hundred years is a massive barrier for change,” Beverley Thorpe, program manager at Clean Production Action and author of the report, says in a statement. Clean Production Action promotes green chemicals, materials, and products.

Switching to biobased feedstocks, such as wood pulp, to make these basic chemicals isn’t a solution, the report asserts. “Benzene will still be a carcinogen regardless of how it is produced,” Thorpe says. Instead, chemical manufacturers need to consider toxicity and the climate impacts of their operations and products.

As an alternative to massive chemical manufacturing complexes such as those concentrated around the Houston Ship Channel and in Louisiana, the report recommends smaller-scale, distributed chemical production. These operations should garner input from surrounding communities, rely on green chemistry and green engineering principles, and make chemicals that pose low hazards, the report says.

Benzene will still be a carcinogen regardless of how it is produced.
Beverley Thorpe, program manager, Clean Production Action

The report argues in detail about implementing safer substitutes for basic chemicals as part of a transition to a nontoxic economy. It supports the Louisville Charter, a 2021 statement calling for major transformation of the chemical industry to support an equitable and health-based sustainable economy.

In response to the report, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry trade group, says product safety and sustainable chemistry are key considerations as companies develop new chemicals and technologies.

“Chemicals need to be produced and used in ways that protect the health of people and the environment. The chemical industry is innovating to make products safer, make our manufacturing processes more stringent, and to be more transparent about what we are doing well and where we can improve,” the ACC says in a statement emailed to C&EN.



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