Responsible Care: Sustainability takes center stage

13:48 PM | July 9, 2018

Responsible Care—the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) signature environmental, health, safety, and security initiative—remains a core pillar of the chemical industry’s operating philosophy. ACC recently announced sustainability principles that include ambitious targets to recycle or recover 100% of plastic packaging in the United States by 2040.

The sustainability principles are designed to promote the safe use of chemicals and address the health and environmental impacts of industry’s operations and products—including circular-economy solutions to keep plastics out of the environment. While specifics surrounding the measurement of health and environmental impacts are still being hashed out, ACC believes creating a platform for member companies to demonstrate industry’s commitment to sustainability is a natural extension of Responsible Care and necessary to improve public perception.

“[W]e recognize as an industry, we have to expand our commitment to enhance the sustainability inside our fence line in our operations,” CEO and president Cal Dooley said at ACC’s recent annual meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We’re making and developing new commitments to demonstrate that.” Industry is also in a strong position, through its innovation, technologies, and products, to deliver greater sustainability contributions to society as a whole, he added.

“From inception, the development of ACC’s sustainability principles has been a natural progression of our industry’s commitment to Responsible Care, which has always been focused on doing our best for people and communities,” says Mike Graff, chairman and CEO of American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc., who also chairs ACC’s board-level committee on Responsible Care. “The chemical industry has long been an essential driver and provider of innovative products and services to enable sustainability, and our challenge was to further focus on where we as an industry could have the most meaningful and desired impact.”

ACC spent 18 months engaging with stakeholders to develop the principles. “There’s a good percentage of member companies that are actually just beginning their sustainability journey,” says Debra Phillips, ACC VP/Sustainability and Market Outreach. “Many ACC member companies will be using our sustainability initiative as the blueprint for defining their own programs. And for companies that are farther along, our program is complementary to their efforts.”

DOOLEY: Staying on another
year to tackle plastics problem.

ACC talked to the largest companies within its membership to evaluate how and what they report, says Jerry MacCleary, CEO of Covestro’s North American business and the ACC executive board member leading sustainability efforts. “We already do a significant amount of reporting, including air emissions and environmental metrics,” he says. “We also looked at GRI, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and EcoVadis [an outside auditing firm].” ACC’s sustainability committee found a number of gaps in existing programs when compared with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development goals for 2030. “We determined where the biggest gaps were that we needed to address,” MacCleary says.

ACC also engaged in listening sessions with brand owners, non-government organizations (NGOs), and third party standard-setting organizations, Phillips says. ACC also hired outside firms to hold meetings—without ACC at the table—to ensure feedback was frank and honest. “We talked to folks in the finance sector. We talked at green chemistry and sustainable chemistry science centers, third-party standard centers, [to] officials from the EPA, from the GSA, from the Federal Trade Commission,” Phillips says. She characterizes the feedback from third parties as strong. “There was a sense that the chemical industry is late to the [sustainability] party, so it needs to be a serious effort,” she says.

Stakeholder surveys and focus group testing similarly indicated expectations for industry are high, Phillips says. “These are serious commitments and we have a lot of work to do. We’ve put in a stake in the ground around the deliverables, which we expect to announce over the next few years and then get to work delivering on them.”

ACC has created a three-year implementation plan for the principles that includes developing measurement strategies to determine improvement. Some of the sustainability metrics or best practices that come out of these discussions may be incorporated into Responsible Care as codes. “A lot of those decisions will happen later this year,” Phillips says.

Other deliverables for 2018 are related to the circular-economy strategy and how to better communicate industry’s contribution to sustainability, including additional content for ACC’s newly-launched website,

ACC’s Council for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (CSMEs) will be helping smaller companies that do not have the resources to maintain a dedicated sustainability officer or staff. “For the large companies, I believe it’s going to be a little bit less stressful to implement these goals,” MacCleary says. “For small- to medium-sized companies that don’t have the same resources, we’re going to find solutions to help them with the metrics and data collection.”

Plastics problem

The very visible problem of plastic waste, particularly marine litter, has been of growing public concern. At the annual meeting, ACC’s board approved actions to ensure that the chemicals and plastics industry takes a global leadership role to reduce and ultimately eliminate plastic waste. Dooley even agreed to delay his previously announced retirement, scheduled for the end of 2018, by one year to help lead the initiative.

The plastics-management goals include a target of recycling or recovering 100% of plastic packaging in the United States by 2040. ACC also intends to make 100% of plastics packaging recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and have all US manufacturing sites operated by the council’s plastics division members participating in Operation Clean Sweep Blue—a stewardship program for facilities that handle plastic materials to keep them out of waterways—by 2020, with all of their sites across North America in the program by 2022.

“The goals are very aggressive and complementary to our focus on enhancing the industry’s leadership when it comes to improving the sustainability of our operations, the contributions our products make to sustainability, and, in the plastics area, how are we responding to mitigating plastic waste,” Dooley said at the meeting.

INDUSTRY COMMITMENT: Technology will play a role in the circular economy.

Steve Russell, ACC’s VP of plastics, said the goals publicly affirm ACC’s vision “for safe, sanitary plastic packaging and our intention to get there quickly.” He acknowledged that the targets were “stretch” goals, but said industry could reach them through innovation and cooperation. “Technology is going to play a role here,” he said. The goals also support major brands and retailers, many of which have made their own commitments. “In many cases we are already working with them to increase consumer access to recycling and in the development of new technologies and infrastructure. So we believe these goals will focus those efforts and better align them as we move forward together,” he said.

To achieve the goals, plastic resin producers plan to focus on six key areas: designing new products for greater efficiency, recycling, and reuse; developing new technologies and systems for collecting, sorting, recycling, and recovering materials; making it easier for more consumers to participate in recycling and recovery programs; expanding the types of plastic collected and repurposed; aligning products with key end-markets; and expanding awareness that used plastics are valuable resources awaiting their next use.

The effort will also work to ensure that Americans have broader access to curbside or easier collection of plastics, Russell says. Product development and new technologies will also play a role in making plastic products that are more sustainable and easier to recycle and incorporate in a circular economy. “The challenge is to develop the new business and value-chain models that could allow these products to be kept in use for longer periods of time and, in fact, become circular,” Russell says. “A key to making these goals work will be developing and deploying technologies that will be able to convert polymers back to feedstock so that they can be used again and again in a truly circular form.”

ACC will also invest in technology to make sure that plastics can be broken down and reused, “...whether that’s chemical recycling, mechanical recycling, or pyrolysis,” Phillips says. “There’s a number of technologies under development that need to be scaled up in order to really make a dent in what is truly a global problem,” she says.

Phillips adds that ACC’s commitment to recycling and recovering plastics will extend beyond the United States, given that much of the massive wave of North American chemicals and plastics investment going into the ground currently is earmarked for export to growing markets in Asia. “The idea is not to just help design products for recycling at the place of origin,” Phillips says. “We will also help countries like India, without appropriate waste-management infrastructure, get that in place.”

Marine litter is probably the most publically-visible manifestation of the plastics issue so it is going to be very important for industry to address it and address it quickly, Phillips says. “[Marine litter] has become part of the mainstream conversation,” she adds. “Industry needs to step up and start to be part of the solution very quickly.”

MacCleary says that while marine debris is an emotional issue it is also an opportunity. “No one—not our shareholders, employees, or customers—want to see images of marine life with plastics wrapped around them. This is an industry issue, not just a single-use plastics packaging issue. Industry is making a lot of progress communicating a better story, about how our products help solve sustainable development challenges, like lightweighting automobiles and energy efficiency. But at the end of the day, when we look at the marine debris issue, it’s clear we need a better program for waste management,” he says.

Overall, the new plastics recycle and reuse efforts align well with industry and individual company sustainability efforts, MacCleary says. “We strongly believe we are part of the solution with our products,” he adds. “Our technology and innovation can bring sustainable solutions that are good for the environment.”

Waste prevention and management are critical parts of Covestro’s sustainability and circular-economy efforts, MacCleary adds. Recycling and thermal recovery can provide financial savings and also help carbon dioxide emissions. Covestro is working on capture of CO2 and other gases to reuse as feedstock. “We can actually capture the CO2 and put it back into the process as a raw material to make polyurethane foams,” MacCleary says. Those products are used in applications such as insulation and lightweighting of cars, providing further sustainability benefits.

MacCleary notes a significant change in industry’s level of engagement over the past two years. There is a near-complete commitment to drive improvement, he adds. “It’s not because there may be some negative press out there, but we know we have the solutions to help,” MacCleary says. “We want get our story out there to make sure that we can be part of that and make these [coordinated efforts] even more successful.”

ACC board chairman and LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel says industry needs to take a more direct and aggressive role throughout the entire value chain. “It’s a chain that runs all the way from the natural gas to the company that makes packaging and owns the brand,” Patel told attendees of ACC’s annual meeting. “We’ve concluded that, given the amount of fragmentation there in the conversion space, we need to be the catalyst and demonstrate leadership to get this topic top of mind. But it’s the entire value chain that has to engage.”

LyondellBasell recently launched a 50-50 joint venture (JV), Quality Circular Polymers, in plastics recycling with Suez (Paris, France), a leading European water-treatment and waste-management firm, at Sittard-Geleen, Netherlands. The JV facility transforms used plastic material into virgin-replacement quality polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) materials. The plant is capable of converting consumer waste into 25,000 metric tons of PP and high-density PE with an objective of 35,000 metrics tons later in 2018 and 100,000 metric tons by 2020. The plant will address a growing need for improving the sustainability profile of high-quality plastics in Europe, LyondellBasell says.

Human health impacts

Consumer focus group tests also indicated the need for industry to be transparent and deliver improvements on human health impacts from chemicals. The Responsible Care product-safety codes—introduced in 2013 by ACC—set out a framework to manage a number of impacts, but there is currently no measurement system to demonstrate progress. For this reason, ACC has made developing metrics to measure human health impacts one of its first deliverables—due next year.

“One of the key needs we are hearing from our stakeholders is for clear, transparent information on chemical safety and the chemical ingredients that are in the products people use and come across every day,” Graff says. “Our industry-wide sustainability principles highlight our commitment to promote the safe use of chemicals and to provide information on the impacts of chemicals based on hazards, exposures, risks and lifecycle impacts, using best available science... [O]ver the coming months, as we are developing new metrics that will help us measure our sustainability performance, we aim to identify specific metrics that address human health and safety.”

Quantifying human health impacts, however, is likely to be one of the most difficult metrics for ACC to develop. “There’s a lot of expertise within the industry and also outside the industry,” Phillips says. “We want to make sure that the metric is going to be credible externally, so there’s going to be a lot of stakeholder consultation. We will bring in external experts but it also will be science-based and something industry itself is comfortable with.”

Continuous improvement

Meanwhile, the existing components of Responsible Care continue to log successes as well. “Over the last couple of years in particular, we’ve had great strides and accomplishment in terms of process and behavioral safety, and how as an industry we’ve built critical sharing networks across companies and functions of operations, and even across related industries,” Graff says. “We continue to have the mindset and willingness to be introspective as an industry and remain open and understanding of the needs and drivers of our industry, people and society at large.”

In 2016, the process-safety code moved to a new incident-tracking system using API Recommended Practice (RP) 754, which identifies leading and lagging process-safety indicators useful for driving performance improvement, for nationwide public reporting as well as internal use at individual facilities. “TP 754 had been widely adopted by the oil and gas industry as a way to track and make progress,” Phillips says. “By ACC adopting it, it became a mandatory metric for our members. We reduced the reporting threshold so we’re capturing more incidents. The first data came in earlier this year. It tripled the number of incidents that we can access and learn from. We think it’s going to give us a much more robust way to look at trends. Regionally, there will be talks to discuss incidents and corrective measures—a safe zone to be frank and have open discussions. Having access to more information will clearly make process safety more robust.”

Occupational safety rates for ACC’s member companies are already quite low—several times lower than the chemical industry as a whole and even lower when compared with manufacturing and other sectors. “There’s a feeling that we’ve potentially reached a level of occupational safety where it’s going to be really difficult to make additional improvements, but ACC is still doubling down on this,” Phillips says. “There’s consideration now to expand reporting, look more at root causes, and gather more information to try and continue to improve occupational safety rates.”

ACC is also looking at ways member companies can exchange ideas about more outside-of-the-box initiatives. Dow Chemical has partnered with Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), an organization that educates drivers to spot the signs of human sex trafficking. Every one of Dow’s distribution providers in North America is required to provide its drivers with the TAT training. Another example is BASF’s work with the Wildlife Habitat Council to enhance biodiversity. This can be done by planting native species, creating nature trails, or establishing science centers.

“These are the kind of things that we have been kicking around since we began discussing the connection between sustainability and Responsible Care,” Phillips says. “Are there issues out there, even social issues, where Responsible Care hasn’t been as active and [that] we would potentially want to facilitate through the program? Maybe it wouldn’t become a hard requirement within Responsible Care, but the network could certainly play a facilitating role.”

“It’s also important that we recognize and work together with others in the public and private sector that are making ongoing commitments to build and grow a more sustainable world,” Graff adds. “None of us can do it alone—we all depend on and benefit from the skills and expertise of a variety of stakeholders including those in the fields of energy, food and water, health and nutrition, building and construction, transportation, recycling and waste management, environmental protection and sustainable development, to develop new and innovative ways that chemistry can contribute to a sustainable future.”

Phillips believes that it is too soon to tell whether Responsible Care or the introduction of the sustainability initiative is improving the public’s view of the chemical industry. “As we went out and did our stakeholder interviews and consumer focus group testing, it’s clear that there are reputational issues that are quite difficult to overcome,” Phillips says.

In addition, member enthusiasm around sustainability, marine debris issues, and the circular economy has been unprecedented, Phillips says. “It’s been amazing to see the high levels of engagement and leadership from our company CEOs, who are really stepping up and embracing this issue to drive progress,” she says.