Sustainable Consumption Through Better Chemistry

LUDWIGSHAFEN,GERMANY – The chemical industry is committed to sustainable consumption. But doesthis mean that it should switch completely from fossil feedstocks – oil, gas,and coal – to renewable resources, as environmentalists often demand? In fact, theindustry is already making this switch – whenever and wherever it makes sense. Butit does not always make sense, and there are various ways in which the industrycan protect the environment.

Renewable rawmaterials account for around 4% of BASF’s total feedstock. In certain businesses,such as care chemicals (used for personal hygiene and home care and so forth),the figure can be much higher, depending on the market and the level of demand.But, even if the share of renewables were suddenly and dramatically increased, thiswould not necessarily produce the desired outcomes, because being “bio-based”is not intrinsically sustainable, and sustainable consumption does not involve onlyreplacing fossil with renewable feedstock.

Despite claims tothe contrary, renewable feedstock is finite, too, and its production is often associatedwith challenges such as deforestation, changing land use, and marginalization offood production. In short, we are a long way from having a clear picture ofthese complex interactions.

To take one example,BASF has developed a compostable plastic that can be used to make bags to helpcollect organic waste and turn it into a valuable resource. But developing anew technology and a smart product is not enough. Compostable plastics also needto be composted. In the absence of local waste-management companies with appropriatesystems for collecting and composting the bags, their environmental benefitsare limited.