To close the year at Trending Topics we offer a few thoughts on trends to safer chemicals. At the macro level, the 21st century started with “peak oil” on the horizon and biobased feedstocks displacing fossil fuels as the resource for chemicals. Now with the U.S. fracking boom, natural gas is once again ascendant and chemical manufacturers are investing tens of billions of dollars into converting ethane and propane into chemical products. On the fringes of the dominant trends in the industry some chemical manufacturers are investing in safer chemicals and materials.
Meanwhile an emerging -- and in some cases dominant -- trend is the growing demand for safer chemicals in beauty and personal care, building cleaning, apparel and footwear, and electrical and electronic products. What is clear, and not surprising, is consumers and brands overwhelmingly prefer inherently safer chemicals in their products.
Chemical Industry Trends in 2014
The chemical industry is a roughly $5 trillion global business sector, and within the U.S. it is a roughly $800 billion sector. The massive influx of crude oil and, especially, natural gas from fracking is changing the equation for chemical manufacturing in the U.S. where:
- Affordable natural gas provides U.S. chemical manufacturers with a “compelling cost advantage over their global counterparts who use a more expensive, oil-based feedstock.”
- Chemical companies are investing billions of dollars in new crackers that produce ethylene from ethane. “According to an ACC report, potential domestic chemical investment related to sha
re gas has reached as high as $100 billion ... Already 148 projects … have been announced by chemical makers to take advantage of ample natural gas supplies.”
- “These projects may lead to $81 billion in new chemical industry output annually and 637,000 permanent new jobs by 2023.”
- On the “green” side, a 2009 estimate placed the green chemistry market at a few billion dollars per year while growing to $100 billion by 2020. Another forecast of biobased chemicals, which are not necessarily “greener” chemicals, estimates that biobased chemicals could account for 10% of the chemical market by next year (2015).
All Chemicals are Not Created Equal – Some are Inherently Safer than Others
Increasingly companies are benchmarking chemicals based on their inherent hazards. The GreenScreen®, US EPA DfE “Safer Chemical Ingredients List”, SciVera Lens™, and Cradle to Cradle Certified™ are all examples of initiatives that differentiate chemicals based on their potential hazards to human health and the environment.
Earlier in the year here at Trending Topics we highlighted trends to safer Flame Retardants and Plasticizers based on GreenScreen assessments. Other significant trends to safer alternatives include in Fragrances, Cleaning Products (and their related functional ingredients including solvents, and surfactants), and Preservatives.
Leading examples of chemical manufacturers developing and marketing safer alternatives include:
- DSM manufacturing halogen-free products for the electrical and electronics markets.
- Eastman Chemical with its new non-phthalate plasticizer, DEHT – a GreenScreen Benchmark 3 chemical.
Consumers and End Users Prefer Safer Chemicals
Brands that are closest to consumers have the greatest liabilities associated with chemicals of concern are moving the fastest to de-select toxic chemicals and prefer safer alternatives. Highlights in demand for safer chemicals in 2014 include:
- Target and Walmart launching their Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability initiative.
- Health care sector eliminating flame retardants in furnishings.
- SC Johnson agreeing to disclose all fragrances in its products.
- Apple releasing new regulated substances specification that bans n-hexane in and other toxics in manufacturing processes.
- Many of the major apparel and footwear brands have committed to using safer chemicals in products and manufacturing – see Greenpeace and ZDHC.