Industry-wide targets to improve the sustainability of key ingredients in millions of household products in seven years have been set by a task force comprising 10 of the world’s most influential chemicals companies.
Led by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the task force brought together leaders from some of the largest chemical using, product-making, and waste management companies to share information and work out a way forward for the global polymers in liquid formulations (PLFs) industry. The group believes that it will be possible to develop and scale the first biodegradable PLFs and advance circular economy infrastructure for these chemicals by 2030. These two goals underpin an ambition for industry-wide transition for the $125 billion sector to become sustainable by 2040.
The way that PLFs are made, used, and disposed of is putting unnecessary strain on the environment by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, using up the earth’s finite resources, and generating waste. Details of how the chemical industry can make these ingredients more sustainable is revealed in the RSC’s new report, The PLFs Revolution: Our 2040 roadmap for sustainable polymers in liquid formulations.
Without knowing it, we interact with PLFs every day. Among their many useful properties, they can keep soil away from fabrics in laundry detergents, enhance the performance of cosmetics, help paint stick to walls, and even help make drinking water clean and safe.
Despite their ubiquity and usefulness, most PLFs are not currently recyclable and are made using fossil-based petrochemical sources. More than 36 million tonnes of these valuable ingredients are made and not recovered after use every year, enough to fill Wembley Stadium 32 times over. Many of the challenges faced are comparable to plastic pollution, for which recycling infrastructure, research and innovation, and general awareness have come on significantly in recent years.
Professor Anju Massey-Brooker, industry associate at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “We are being deliberately ambitious. The scale of this challenge is immense; PLFs can be found in everything from cosmetics and make-up to fertilisers and lubricants for machinery. However, with the right funding and collaboration, we can design biodegradable PLFs and put in place the infrastructure needed to create circular economies for them, so that products retain their usefulness while being more sustainable.
“Government, academics, industry, and the public have shown this can be done through their work to reduce the harms caused by plastic pollution; all these groups now need to come together and join the PLFs revolution.”
Counting industry heavyweights Unilever, BASF, and Walgreens Boots Alliance among its members, the PLFs Task Force was established in 2021 to create a step change in research and innovation that would catalyse a manageable transition to sustainable PLFs.
This has culminated in the release of the roadmap which calls on industry, academia, and policymakers to help facilitate the transition.
Tony Heslop, Senior Sustainability Manager at BASF, said: “As the global population grows, demand for PLFs will only increase – and our industry needs to take the transition to a sustainable PLFs ecosystem seriously. This means moving away from fossil to biobased feedstocks and creating a circular economy to minimise waste and maximise reuse and recycling.
“This is of course something that no industry body or organisation can tackle in isolation, and as such, the RSC’s task force provides a strategic platform that allows us to work with our industry peers to generate solutions that we can all benefit from, while reducing our collective impact on the planet.”
The UK Government is called upon to create a national chemicals regulator that would set a gold standard in regulation, while academic institutions are asked to use PLFs terminology, collaborate with industry and publish research to stimulate innovation in this field.
The roadmap calls for industry to rapidly advance research and development on PLFs and task force members are already leading the charge. The speciality chemicals manufacturer and task force member Croda recently partnered with the Universities of Nottingham and York on an EPSRC-supported project to develop some of the world’s first sustainable PLFs.
Dr Ian Tooley, vice president of chemistry at Croda, commented: “The PLFs task force has been a catalyst for industry innovation and collaboration which has already resulted in tangible benefits for our business. Thanks to our involvement, we have established a new research partnership with York and Nottingham universities in which we’re using AI to help create biodegradable PLFs. If successful, not only will this make our products more sustainable, the project will have provided significant learning opportunities that will enhance the career prospects of the postgraduate and PhD students who have been working with us on this project.”
It is impossible to understand the sustainability challenges inherent in PLFs without looking at the full lifecycle of these chemicals, according to the RSC. In order to ensure a whole-system approach, the task force identified two missions for industry to rally around and deliver by 2030:
- Mission 1: Develop and scale biodegradable PLFs by 2030
- Mission 2: Advance circular economy infrastructure for PLFs by 2030
The former focuses on mitigating the environmental impact of PLFs that cannot be collected and recycled by designing new polymers/products that biodegrade in soil or water. The latter seeks to set a standard for the recycling and circularity of PLFs.
The missions can be delivered by nine priorities to speed the transition to a sustainable ecosystem. These include the creation of a ‘Biodegradability Network’ where universities, research labs, and other stakeholders share knowledge to help advance the biodegradability of PLFs, and the implementation of national chemicals regulation to deliver more effective observation and control of pollutants.
Task force members include (alphabetically): Afton Chemicals; BASF; Croda, Crown Paints; Dow; Northumbrian Water; Scott Bader; Unilever; United Utilities; Walgreens Boots Alliance.
Case study: Artificial Intelligence (AI) could help create bio-based and biodegradable PLFs:
A research partnership between the speciality chemicals manufacturer Croda and the Universities of York and Nottingham is using AI in a project aimed at creating biodegradable PLFs.
The team is researching PLFs’ start and end of life, while exploring the potential to use bio-based monomers in the production process for PLFs. AI will be used to help analyse a vast number of monomers and polymers, thereby enhancing efficiency for the researchers.
With the end goal of creating a set of new and more sustainable PLFs to be used in Croda’s product portfolio, which serves customers including Syngenta and Unilever, the project presents a fantastic learning opportunity for a group of 12 postgraduate students, who will receive bespoke and wide-ranging training from all three partners to set them up for a career in the field.
To find out more about Croda’s partnership with the Universities of York and Nottingham, please visit: https://www.croda.com/en-gb/news/croda-joins-forces-with-academic-experts-to-develop-sustainable-polymers-for-a-clean-future
To find out more about the PLFs Task Force, visit: rsc.li/PLFs