The greening of the eco-villains

How green tech is changing the face of the chemical industry

When Michael Bourque visits industry leaders and ministers to talk about global warming, he always brings along a tattered, black nylon briefcase containing an unlikely report. The report was written in 1994, three years before the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, and it was about 15 years ahead of its time. It contains a thoughtful, practical plan for how chemical manufacturers could tackle climate change, and it was written before many consumers even heard of the term “greenhouse gas.” Bourque, who is a spokesperson for the Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association (CCPA), says that it provides clear evidence that far from being an environmental monster, the chemical industry is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to taking real action on the environment.

Of course, the report does come from the industry that gave us the Bhopal disaster and Agent Orange, so any claims of environmentalism should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, the numbers show that while Canadian emissions as a whole have been skyrocketing, the chemical industry has reduced its contribution by considerable amounts. Between 1990 and 2004, Canada’s total emissions of greenhouse gases rose by 26 per cent. Energy use increased by about 25 per cent. Yet, over the same period, the Canadian chemical industry cut its emissions by 60 per cent, according to the CCPA, which tracks the emissions of its members. Carbon dioxide emissions, which peaked in 2002, have fallen by a quarter. Methane, a gas that has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, fell by about 75 per cent, and nitrogen oxides fell by 52 per cent. The industry also reduced toxic emissions by 84 per cent and emissions into water by 99.5 per cent. Benzene, a carcinogen linked to immune deficiencies, is down by 95 per cent—even as its use in the production of rubber, plastics, and medications has increased.

These changes have been brought about partly by social pressure, but they are also due to new technologies, and, perhaps surprisingly, companies acting in their own self-interest to lower costs. The industry has discovered that new, high-tech equipment that lowers energy use not only cuts down on emissions, it also pleases shareholders.

One of the biggest investments made by the industry has been in a process called cogeneration, which allows plants to reuse the steam and heat produced in power generation to do useful things like crack plastics. Such energy recycling has become increasingly viable in the past decade, and it has allowed chemical companies such as Imperial Chemical Industries, Shell Chemicals, and the Dow Chemical Co. to lower emissions while cutting costs. Most of Canada’s major chemical companies in Ontario and Alberta already use the new technology, which has allowed them to cut nitrogen oxide pollution by about half and carbon by two-thirds. Nova Chemicals has cut carbon emissions at its facility near Red Deer, Alta., from 3.8 to 1.2 million tonnes per year since making the change in 2001. “It’s a win-win situation for companies,” explains Bourque, “because saving energy saves us money and carbon emissions.”

A number of Canadian plants are even reducing their emissions by siphoning off gases and selling them. At Shell’s Scotford site, just northeast of Edmonton, 60 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced is sold to Air Liquide, which is next door. Air Liquide uses 60,000 tonnes of the gas each year in carbonated drinks and to supply the oil and gas industry with carbon dioxide that is pumped into the ground for enhanced oil recovery. In exchange, it supplies Scotford with pure oxygen, which is used in the plastic production process. MEGlobal’s facility in Red Deer also sells carbon dioxide released during its manufacturing processes to nearby oil and gas companies for use in oil extraction.

Of course the chemical industry can only reduce the environmental impact of its manufacturing plants so far. At a certain point, if it truly wants to go green, it has to turn its attention to the damage done by the chemicals it actually sells. To that end, the industry is investing millions to measure the carbon dioxide and energy used to manufacture, recycle and dispose of its products, and it’s attempting to phase out the production of some chemicals altogether. For example, Oakville, Ont.-based Virox Technologies produces an environmentally friendly alternative to bleach called accelerated hydrogen peroxide. Chemically similar to regular hydrogen peroxide—the clear disinfectant you can buy at any drugstore—it works more quickly and at lower doses. Essentially it’s an oxygenated version of water with a few other inert chemicals added to prevent it from breaking down, which means it is easier on the eyes, nose and lungs than chlorinated bleach. Scentless and clear, the chemical breaks down to become oxygen and water when it goes down the drain. The product was originally invented in 1998, but it has only started to dominate the Canadian commercial disinfectant market over the past couple of years. Demand skyrocketed during the SARS epidemic, says John Van Dyke, vice-president of professional and technical services at Virox. While it has yet to be made available to Canadian consumers—it will likely be sold in supermarkets by the end of 2009—it is already the lead disinfectant in hospitals and dental surgeries, Van Dyke says.

A remarkable invention from Minneapolis, Minn.-based Tennant Co., a commercial coatings and cleaning supply company, takes that approach one step further. Its new floor scrubber allows industrial and home cleaning to be done with the most environmentally friendly detergent you can imagine: plain old tap water. Called the “ec-H2O” (pronounced e-c-water), the scrubber cleans by electrolyzing water and splitting it into positively charged and negatively charged streams. Because dirt and germs are slightly charged, the two streams attract dust and debris, and a vacuum sucks it up. The water briefly becomes a detergent, but once the differently charged streams reunite, it turns back into normal—if dirty—tap water.

The chemical industry is even starting to make some progress toward replacing one of its most ubiquitous and environmentally problematic products: plastic. The success of this well-known petrochemical product has also been its environmental downfall, as plastics consume huge amounts of natural resources, can take hundreds of years to break down, and use up to 25 per cent of our landfills.

Several companies are trying to replace plastics made from oil with bioplastics, which are made from plant material. Because carbon dioxide is absorbed by the plants used to produce bioplastics, even once you add up the negative environmental impact of fertilizers, pesticides and transport, they still leave a carbon footprint that’s about half as large as their petroleum-based equivalent. Bioplastics have already replaced traditional plastics in many uses, such as high-wicking sports socks, clothes that feel like cotton or cashmere (Armani and Versace have produced lines), carpets, car interiors and even disposable cutlery, cups and plates, which are used at the U.S. House of Representatives.

Currently, bioplastics are made from food-stocks, such as corn or sugar cane, so their expansion is limited because agricultural land is required for their manufacture. This problem isn’t unsolvable, though: bioplastics made from plants other than food crops are currently being researched, and should come into production within five to 10 years, says Steve Davies, a spokesperson for Minnesota-based NatureWorks, the world’s largest producer of bioplastics.

Looking ahead, the chemical industry as a whole is aiming for the holy grail of environmental protection: removing high volumes of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. The industry has invested millions in carbon dioxide capture, and by the year 2050, Alberta hopes to reduce its projected emissions by 50 per cent, with 70 per cent of that r
eduction coming from storing gases underground. “This field is currently in its infancy,” Bourque says. “But we can expect the number of uses of carbon to multiply in the next decade because so much research is happening around the world.”

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