4 Ways To Get To Zero Chemical Pollution In The Ocean

By Soomin Park 20 June, 2022

Oceans are a key source for our food & livelihoods and are an ally in the climate fight yet, we are drowning them in toxic chemicals. The good news is we get to zero pollution. CWR's Park highlights 4 ways from The Economist's recent report

To stop poisoning our oceans beyond repair everyone in the chemicals value chain must act; first is adopting 'better safe than sorry' principle to regulate chemicals in groups
Manufacturers & finance can grow green chems market as it will lead the industry growth but also reduce costs, regulatory & litigation risks and decarbonise
Consumers play key role too: buying safer products affects downstream co's e.g. cosmetics, FMCG, tech; do your research on brands & chems with help from databases

Our oceans are dying and if we continue to poison them as we are, they will reach a point beyond repair and life on earth will be impossible. Oceans are not only our main source of oxygen but also our single biggest carbon sink. They are our most important ally against climate change.

The situation is dire & yet, we continue to dump toxic chems into our oceans…

Yet, we’re dumping so much toxic chemical waste into the oceans. These chemicals kill – if you want to know what they are and how to avoid them, click here. The situation is dire, and it is humans that are causing this so it is up to us to put a stop to it, to stop chemically polluting our greatest ally.

A recent report The Invisible Wave: Getting to zero chemical pollution in the ocean by Back to Blue, an initiative by Economist Impact and The Nippon Foundation, is a comprehensive overview of the impacts and solutions to marine chemical pollution (MCP). Do check out the 268-pages report – it’s the first-ever report on MCP that addresses both impacts and solutions and it’s based on interviews with various experts including CWR.

…you could be part of the solution, not pollution – see how

But in case you don’t have the time, we’ve summarised their recommendations for tackling MCP into four key takeaways, see below.

These are all-rounded solutions that involve everyone in the chemicals value chain: regulators, businesses, investors, and consumers – so, find out what you can do. As the cliché goes, you could be part of the solution, not pollution!

1. Regulators: Adopt the precautionary principle (a.k.a ‘better safe than sorry’) to avoid potential catastrophic chemical damages

The best way to manage toxic chemicals is with regulations that adopt the precautionary principle, which is essentially a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. This dictates that regulators should not spend time trying to measure the impacts to a great level of precision before acting, given the potentially catastrophic risks of inaction.

Best way to manage toxic chems is to adopt the precautionary principle…

…and needs to be for groups, not just individual chems

And it is a rational approach to take when it comes to dealing with toxic chemicals given there are already significant and life-threatening impacts and the threat of irreversible damage to the planet.

Yet, despite all that, we seem to still be using and dumping chemicals even if we have to pay for clean-up later. Remediation and waste management costs from dealing with just PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyls) alone (one group of forever chemicals) from 1971 to 2018 are estimated to be €20-€90 billion (US$ 21-96 billion) according to the EU Commission.

Clearly, it’s time we adopt the precautionary principle and when we do, it needs to have a ‘family’ or group approach rather than by individual chemicals, even if we don’t know whether all chemicals in the group are in fact harmful. This is because as expert Anne-Sofie Backar says in our interview, it is infinitely difficult to understand all the impacts and the process of banning chemicals individually is too slow. Plus, the burden of proof is on the civil society and the regulators, not the manufacturers. At the current rate, it would take more than 40,000 years for global treaties to regulate all PFAS chemicals one by one…

EU Commission estimates avoiding exposure to mercury in fish could have prevented loss of 650,000 IQ points (US$ 9.4bn value)

The European Commission estimates that avoiding exposure to mercury in fish alone has prevented the loss of 650,000 IQ points a year which is valued at around €9bn (US$ 9.4bn) annually. Clearly, regulators can prioritise public health and economic benefits by taking the precautionary approach and pushing manufacturers to produce ‘safer chemicals’ – which leads to the next solution…

2. Manufacturers: Develop green chemistry products & innovate the business model

While it’s ideal to ban as many toxic chemicals as possible realistically we can’t suddenly stop producing all of them at once. So, the more feasible thing to do is to make sure that the substitutes of the toxic chemicals or newly produced ones do not harm human health and the environment from the product design phase. This is one definition of green chemistry (or sustainable chemistry).

Companies could be leading the market when they recognise that green chemistry is key to new opportunities for growth. From 2015 to 2019, green-chemistry-marketed products accounted for 61.5% of market growth, according to The Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3). We sat down with GC3’s founder to get the latest on the green chems – check out our interview with him.

Need to make sure substitute or new chems do not harm human health & environ, i.e. are green chems…

Meanwhile, 20% of major Japanese chemical producer Sumitomo Chemical’s revenue in 2021 comes from its products and technologies that help solve issues related to the environment and climate change, called ‘Sumika Sustainable Solutions’.

And the Head of Sustainability of Clariant, a Swiss manufacturer of speciality chemicals, was quoted in the Back to Blue reportBack to Blue report that their sales of ‘sustainability leading products’ are growing 1.5 times as fast as the average of the portfolio.

…green chem-marketed products led 61.5% of market growth in 2015-2019. plus other benefits

And transitioning to safer chemicals could lower the extremely high safety compliance costs of producing hazardous chemicals. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer reports that it saw a reduction in cost by employing green chemistry principles to reduce the amount of waste produced during its manufacturing process. On top of that not needing to redesign products at a later stage will save even more money in the long term.

As the chemical producers are also facing an expensive decarbonisation transition, looking for win-win solutions that simultaneously address carbon emissions and pollution is crucial. So, reducing or eliminating these could dramatically reduce the sector’s emissions, not only pollution. Shareholder activist group ShareAction found that seven fossil fuel-based feedstock chemicals (ammonia, methanol, ethylene, propylene, benzene, toluene and xylene) make up 70% of the sector’s total emissions.

3. Finance: Invest in green chemistry start-ups and recognise how business-as-usual is high risk for the chemicals sector

The finance sector can find opportunities in the burgeoning green chemistry start-up scene. Many solutions to marine chemical pollution are in their infancy and businesses alone cannot commercialise GC products at scale fast enough.

One cost-effective way for companies to introduce new, more sustainable products at scale is through the acquisition of green chemistry start-ups as a cheaper alternative to in-house R&D. So private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) funding is critical to ensure sustainable technology for green chemicals.

Seeing co’s acquire green chem start-ups rather than do in-house R&D…

…PE firms invested US$7.4bn in specialty chemicals

In the year to June 2021, PE firms invested US$7.4bn in specialty chemicals alone and their investments into green chemicals are becoming more common. One promising example is Swedish Bank SEB’s VC arm Greentech, which made its first investment in green chemicals production in 2021.

Other than private sector-led finance, instruments such as impact investing or blended finance, which have both sustainability goals and financial ones, must play an essential role.

A first critical step for the sector is recognising that there are clear risks of investing in the chemicals industry if it is to maintain business-as-usual. DuPont and two of its spin-off companies reached a US$4bn settlement deal in 2021 for several legal proceedings relating to its historical use of PFAS, which has contaminated waterways and drinking water across the US and the world.

Clear risks in investing in BAU chem industry….

…e.g. RMB26o million fine for 3 co’s in Jiangsu

And in China, three chemical companies that polluted soil near a school in Jiangsu were ordered to apologise and pay 260 million yuan ($38.2 million) in 2018. For more on regulatory and litigation risks of PFAS producers and users, check out our previous interview with the research manager at Moody’s ESG Solutions here.

Even so, currently, only a few companies have a public strategy to phase out hazardous chemicals according to ChemScore 2021, which ranks the 50 largest global chemical producers on how they manage their chemical footprint – check out our interview with the director of ChemSec and see which companies did best and who the laggards are.

4. Consumers: Know your chemicals before you buy and choose safer & sustainable products

It’s not just the chemical industry itself that will have to transform. After all, it’s us buying cosmetics, FMCG, furniture, technology and household goods made from toxic chemicals. The downstream companies that sell those products with a direct-to-consumer business model are aware of the risks from a reputational hit in terms of consumer awareness of sustainability and product safety.

So, as the individual consumer, we can set the tone and direction of the chemicals sector reaching zero-pollution with our everyday purchase decisions.

As consumers, we can set the direction with our everyday purchase decisions…

…do you research on brands & chems with help from databases

Be aware of what toxic chemicals are contained in the products we buy. You can learn about 8 chemicals found in the oceans that could kill us here first. Then replace or cut down on using those products.

Look out which brands to avoid by carefully reading labelling or if there aren’t, take initiative to find more info online. For example, you could use searchable databases of cosmetics by Beat the Microbead which allows consumers to choose products that do not contain microplastics, and EWG (Environmental Working Group) Skin Deep database which advises consumers on how to read product labels to avoid products containing toxic chemicals.

Your simple habit tweaks can make a difference as we show in our report that covers 8 everyday action areas from food to fashion and being online to delivery, “Together we can”.

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Soomin Park
Author: Soomin Park
Soomin was born in South Korea and lived in Shanghai before she pursued studies in environmental management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. During her transition from a pristine Jeju island to a populous city, Shanghai, she witnessed the important role of the business and finance sector in tackling the global environmental crisis. To understand their applications of sustainability, Soomin was involved in the development of sustainability-driven strategies in different industries such as investment, FMCG, property development and solar energy. At CWR, Soomin aspires to improve water and natural resources’ commercial usage through closing the knowledge gap of corporates and investors in making climate action. During her free time, she produces comics and other forms of creative media to induce social awareness and feelings of connection among the millennial generation to combat climate challenges.
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