Responsible consumption and production

Responsible consumption and production

Technical Advisory Group Member, Denny Ng, introduces SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production.


Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

UN SDG 12 addresses the need to develop long-term sustainable patterns for the use of materials and resources in the production of manufactured goods and industrial bulk chemicals.

This goal therefore sits right at the core of all activities involved in the chemicals and process industry. It places huge responsibility on the shoulders of all engineers to find and implement solutions that break the traditional ‘Take - Make – Use – Dispose' economic model found in most traditional material conversion processing plants and transform the industry based on a circular economic model.

Within the circular economy, focus switches to the retention of material resources in the delivery of value to the customer, so that the required chemical function is provided with minimal waste and energy use. Product life cycles are designed to recover and reuse materials, with circular flow paths being built-in to the responsible management of molecular substances.

Currently, the majority of established, high-volume chemical industry processes are founded upon the extraction of natural resources from the earth as the starting point for ‘input raw materials’. Very large-scale process plants are then used to convert the raw materials into outputs of value-added chemical products, most often with the consumption of vast amounts of energy, generally in the form of fossil fuels to drive the chemical conversion process. By-products of solid and liquid effluents (emissions to air and waste heat) cause these linear processes to incur significant environmental impacts as part of the overall ‘cost’ of production.

Typical chemical plant outputs are, by design, single-use products. The functional benefits are only capable of being delivered once in the working lifetime of the final product application (e.g., transport fuels or agricultural fertilisers). The very nature of chemical products and the way that they perform a useful function in the ‘end-use phase’, often leads to substantial environmental negative impacts (e.g., CO2 emissions to atmosphere, and chemicals run-off into water courses and the oceans).

This overview of the worldwide chemicals industry gives a clear indication of the need to change the traditional consumption and production patterns that dominate our sector and the urgent need to re-design the basic economic and material resource models that engineers use to deliver the multiple benefits to society. Re-thinking the way in which the extractive industries can sympathetically utilise natural resources and convert them using low-impact processes which can still deliver the much-needed output product benefits, is a huge challenge for the chemical engineers of the near future.

The role of chemical engineers

Training future chemical engineers to think in a circular economic model, where materials and resources can be harnessed to flow in long-term sustainable loops around natural and technological cycles, is a key challenge.

In addition, systems thinking is needed for chemical engineers to design products and processes which can deliver sustainable end-of-life products. Finding novel and inventive ways to deliver the huge chemical benefits to our industry and develop new products for modern society and then making those material flow-loops environmentally benign in terms of impact on the planet, will involve a re-shaping of the whole industry and the value-chain associated with it.

Examples of how process engineering can be used to deliver sustainable solutions in a modern industry include:

  • waste materials recovery and recycling processes where end-of-life products are collected, dismantled and re-processed to make new metals and plastics for low-carbon sources of raw materials
  • utilising natural based feedstock to reduce the dependency of fossil-based feedstock
  • maximising energy efficiency and recovery to reduce the energy footprint of products
  • renewable energy sources used to reduce carbon emissions

During the difficult transition period from linear material consumption models to circular and sustainable processing systems, there is an urgent need to implement and install technological solutions that can decarbonise the existing high-impact chemicals industry sectors. It is important to explore renewable feedstock and energy sources to reduce carbon footprint and also evaluate the environmental impact of alternative technologies generated at the end of life.