VNCI Royal Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry

One hundred and fifty years ago, ivory and tortoiseshell were common materials for many consumer products. For example, the ivory from an elephant’s tusks was used for piano keys and billiard balls, and a luxurious hair comb was made from the shell of a sea turtle. Only when the elephants and turtles were threatened with extinction did they start looking for an alternative material.

Column Michiel van Kuppenvelt

The English chemist Alexander Parkes experimented in 1862 with cotton fibers dissolved in nitric and sulfuric acid and mixed with vegetable oil. The result: cellulose nitrate, the first plastic. It was a cheap alternative to ivory and tortoiseshell and looked attractive too. It was a great success. Thanks to this new material, many more people could now access new products.

Illustration: Fenna (11 years old)

With his invention, Parkes stood at the cradle of an industry that, thanks to many innovations, would become the plastics industry as we know it today, bringing us a lot of convenience and prosperity. After all, no plastic, no life-saving injection needle, no safe food packaging, no sports shoes and no flashy glasses (frames and ‘glasses’). But the success also turned out to have a number of unwanted effects that were not initially foreseen: The wonder material does not break down, and it accumulates in the environment.


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The European chemicals strategy Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) responds to this by allowing polymers (collective name for all plastics) to be registered under the REACH chemical legislation. The idea is that this will provide more information about plastics and lead to better control. And harmful polymers can thus be better kept out of the living environment.

The European chemicals strategy Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) responds to this by allowing polymers (collective name for all plastics) to be registered under the REACH chemical legislation. The idea is that this will provide more information about plastics and lead to better control. And harmful polymers can thus be better kept out of the living environment.

In addition, CSS bets on safe and sustainable by design, where the goal is to consider the entire life cycle in the design of chemicals. In addition to the usual functional requirements, the functionality during use must also be taken into account, especially at the end of the trip. This means that a product must be depolymerizable or mechanically recyclable after use, or must be able to serve as a nutrient in the biological cycle. In this way, possible future negative (environmental) impacts must be prevented in advance.

Making chemistry in a safe and sustainable way is exciting and promising. Exactly what this will look like will be investigated in more detail in the near future. It is already clear that it is important that it is not just one check the boxexercise becomes, but much more a change in mindset. Small steps should also be rewarded for this. Furthermore, it is important that safe and sustainable design can be properly integrated into the innovation processes -oneAll chemical companies, even the smaller ones.

Finally, it is important to realize that safe and sustainable design extends beyond the chemical industry alone. The trade-offs that must be made between (chemical) safety, climate change, biodiversity and raw materials are complex and partly of a social and political nature. Innovations, based on safe and sustainable design, can pave the way for the climate-neutral, circular and clean living environment that we all want. A good and open collaboration between all stakeholders is essential for this. Fortunately, there are already good examples of companies and public institutions collaborating to see what safe and sustainable urban design can look like in practice (see QR code).

Chemical innovations gave us an unprecedented variety of useful materials. Unfortunately, some functionalities of these materials also proved to have negative effects. To prevent this in the future, the new standard for innovation will be safe and sustainable by design. I am convinced that it will solve some of the climate, environmental and energy challenges we now face. And just like before, innovation must be experimented with, so in that respect, no more chemistry is needed!

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