It’s fair to say that the chemical industry doesn’t have a reputation for being eco-friendly, but at the same time it’s also clear that we should be doing everything we can to lessen our impact on the environment. In the chemical industry, this becomes more difficult, so we need to look at ways to make our manufacturing facilities more eco-friendly, sustainable, and reduce our carbon footprint.
Chemical manufacturing is risky in terms of both potential health hazards and environmental impact. The level of danger, however, varies depending on the type of chemical being manufactured or processed. For instance, a chemical company that produces fertilisers may pose a greater environmental impact than a chemical company that only produces food additives. This is why specific best practices for environmental sustainability vary depending on the type of chemicals that a company manufactures.
In this post:
What Are the Environmental Challenges in the Chemical Industry?
Pollution control, preservation of ecological habitats, and protection of wildlife species have direct bearing on the long-term profitability of a chemical manufacturing business. But to achieve these initiatives, companies must overcome several environmental challenges.
The chemical industry has to deal with many environmental challenges. These include air and soil pollution, getting rid of industrial waste effectively, depleting natural resources, and high energy consumption.
These challenges require cost-effective and sustainable solutions that promote productivity. Many chemical manufacturers are trying to balance achieving these high production targets while reducing their ecological impact – and it is possible with methods we’ll get into later in this article.
But for now, here are some of the common environmental challenges that face the chemical industry today:
- Air pollution: All industrial chemical processes produce one or more types of exhaust that pollute the air. These not only include pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide – even apparently clean and harmless steam that factories produce could react with sulphur dioxide and oxygen in the air to form sulphuric acid, or acid rain (SO2+O2+H2OH2SO4). One way facilities can minimise the extent of this is by reducing the temperature of the steam before it’s released into the air.
- Soil pollution: Chemical factories have the potential to pollute the soil through accidental spillage of chemical products, oil, and fuel. For example, vehicles that transport products to and from the factory can potentially leak oil and fuel into the ground. Old chemical depots, like former chemical weapons sites, can also contaminate the ground with the harmful chemicals stored there. This is why hazardous waste disposal is regulated by law.
- Noise pollution: The machines and vehicles that are used by chemical factories can contribute to noise pollution. For this reason, it’s important that factories are located in non-residential areas.
- Waste disposal: Chemical factories produce solid, liquid, and gaseous waste. If these aren’t disposed of correctly, they can present a danger to the surrounding environment, including water sources, the air, wildlife habitats, and even humans. The protocols required by law and international treaties vary depending on the type of waste produced. In general, though, waste products that are hazardous are required to be handled more carefully and should be disposed of in sealed containers in designated dumpsites.
- Depleting natural resources: Many of the precursors and ingredients used by chemical manufacturing companies are non-renewable. These include metals, minerals, and hydrocarbons. These ingredients cannot be artificially mass produced; they can only be mined. As the world moves towards a more sustainable future, there’s a responsibility for the chemical industry to incorporate more renewables into their processes.
- High energy consumption: As market demand for various chemical products increases, the production quota must also increase. This means higher energy consumption in terms of electricity and fossil fuels as chemical manufacturers try to keep up with demand.
6 Ways a Chemical Manufacturing Facility Become More Eco-Friendly
While some of these aforementioned challenges are inevitable and can only be managed to a certain extent, others can be completely eliminated – but this requires significant amounts of time and financial investment in technological innovations. This is why many chemical manufacturers struggle on how to balance achieving production quota cost-effectively with the need to reduce the environmental impact of production.
Still, while it isn’t easy, it can be done. Becoming more eco-friendly isn’t only achieved by technological innovations and huge capital investments – sometimes, going back to basics is the best approach.
1. Use Renewable Energy
Using renewable energy and enforcing controlled, regulated processes that consume less power can help optimise energy use and lessen the impact on the environment. You could also consider building your own source of renewable energy at your facility, and it’s worth investigating the tax breaks this can offer. On-site energy can improve your facility from both an environmental and financial perspective.
For example, some chemical manufacturers have grid-tied renewable energy sources like solar and wind. These are typically supplementary energy sources that power the lights, computers, and electronic systems, providing significant savings in power consumption.
Renewable sources of energy can also be directly supplied by large power plants that rely on solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, and hydroelectric power. In the UK, about 43% of electricity is generated from renewable sources.
2. Become Zero Waste to Landfill
Landfills have a profoundly negative impact on the environment and contribute to global warming as well as the pollution of soil and water. Based on a 2018 government estimate, the UK generates approximately 43.9 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste annually, with about 85% of this being generated in England. But in 2019, the waste to landfill in England rose by 4% to 45,859,000 tonnes.
Chemical manufacturers can reduce their part in this by becoming zero waste to landfill. This means that at least 99% of waste is reused – for example, by recycling cardboard and composting food waste. Your company can also reuse some of your resources, and reduce your use of plastics and other non-biodegradable materials. Electronic waste can also be minimised by investing in durable and long-lasting electronic products.
Read about how ReAgent is officially zero waste to landfill.
3. Update Industrial Processes
There are two options to consider here. Firstly, manufacturers can develop alternative production methods and processes that reduce harmful by-products. Secondly, any by-products could be reused or recycled instead of going to waste. This can help both the environment and a company’s bottom line.
Another way chemical manufacturers could update industrial processes is through automation. While the synthesis of some chemical compounds, especially organic compounds, require complex processes that can’t be fully automated, even just automating select industrial processes can have a huge impact on environmental sustainability. Automation can also bring massive financial savings to chemical manufacturers, achieving higher degrees of efficiency, accuracy, and productivity.
4. Use Environmentally-Friendly Lighting
LED lights consume between 25-80% less energy per year than traditional incandescent bulbs, and one LED bulb can lessen greenhouse gas emissions by an incredible half a ton. Not only that, but LED bulbs last around 25 times longer than traditional bulbs, and they don’t contain or emit mercury.
For these reasons, installing environmentally-friendly lighting in your factory isn’t only an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint, it also translates to a significant amount of savings in terms of energy consumption (we know this because we use LED lights at ReAgent).
5. Fit an Eco-Friendly Heating System
Some HVAC systems in large manufacturing facilities are outdated and inefficient. Eco-friendly HVAC systems include a centralised air conditioning system with inverters, as well as smart thermostats that regulate the heating and cooling of the facility.
You could also use destratification fans, which distribute heat evenly in industrial buildings that have high ceilings. This lowers gas usage by up to 20% and, in turn, a manufacturer’s carbon footprint. You could also fit modulating heating controls, which are highly energy-efficient and reduce energy loss.
Your company could also invest in biomass and solar panel heating systems that are more eco-friendly than conventional gas-powered heating systems, and can either replace or supplement your traditional heating system.
6. Conserve Water
Water is the most important resource we have, next to air. Only about 3% of Earth’s water is fresh, but only 1.2% of that small portion is accessible as drinking water. This makes conserving water an important objective for all industries.
Water is used by industries as a coolant, solvent, reagent, cleaning liquid, and as a major ingredient in many products. The scarcity of water, however, should be a motivation for chemical companies to conserve water.
Water-efficiency programs can conserve water and reduce your costs for buying, treating, and disposing of water. It’s best to start by undertaking a water efficiency audit and comparing your results to industry benchmarks to see where improvements can be made. This could be in reducing water flow, updating or replacing equipment, recycling water, or using air-cooled equipment instead of water-cooled.
Environmentally-friendly chemical manufacturing facilities can help conserve our planet’s natural resources at this critical juncture in our history. While there may be an initial cost in becoming more eco-friendly, efficiencies and financial savings (as well as the benefits to the environment) make these changes extremely worthwhile.
All content published on the ReAgent.co.uk blog is for information only. The blog, its authors, and affiliates cannot be held responsible for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from using the information provided. Additionally, we do not recommend using any chemical without reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can be obtained from the manufacturer. You should also follow any safety advice and precautions listed on the product label. If you have health and safety related questions, visit HSE.gov.uk.