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Chemical Processing Industries in Spotlight – issues, trends and future

Posted on April 15th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


In April of 2013, Mother Jones published an article with the bombastic title of “The Chemical Industry is the Big Tobacco of the 21st Century.”  The implications of the title are absurd because the chemical industries produce essential ingredients that have allowed the modern human life to achieve today’s lofty standards.  Obviously, tobacco is a harmful inessential blight on the mankind’s health.  Since publication of the article three years ago the future picture of the chemical industries has only grown more complex.

We are a long way away from the days of “better things for better living through chemistry,” the olden day corporate motto of DuPont that even made its way into a commercial jingle:

The once-revered word chemistry has become so indecorous, best not uttered in genteel company!  Society’s anemic knowledge of chemistry combined with highly publicized incidents and accidents involving chemicals are the root of public inimical view of chemistry and chemicals.  What about the facts?

Chemical Processing Industries (CPI)

Chemical processing industries produce a large number of products by reacting chemicals together.  Those chemicals find their way into every imaginable market segment and fabricated product. Cars, clothes, houses, airplanes, healthcare, medicines, agriculture, food, computers, smart phones and on and on would not exist without chemistry, chemicals and the CPI. Next time you hear about placement of stents in someone’s arteries, a life saving outpatient procedure, remember there would be no stents without chemistry and chemicals plus engineering.

Chemical processing industries manufacture and process chemicals.  A fairly simple classification of commercial categories and examples are listed below; biobased materials is a new category:

Basic chemicals

  • Petrochemicals (derived from oil) – examples: methanol, ethylene, butadiene and toluene
  • Polymers – examples: polyethylene, polycarbonate, polyamide (nylon) and polyaramide (Kevlar®)
  • Basic inorganics – examples: chlorine, ammonia caustic soda, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid

Specialty chemicals – examples: adhesives, agrichemicals, construction chemicals, flame-retardants.

Consumer chemicals – alcohol, cosmetics, glues, cleaners, paints, pesticides, herbicides and foods.

(Biobased chemicals and polymers) – ethanol polysaccharides, poly lactic acid, bioaromatics, and furandicarboxylic acid

Trends and Economic Impact

Chemical production, consumption and disposal continue to expand albeit with uneven geographic distribution.  Once highly developed countries were the hubs of chemical industries. Expansion is now in a steady march into developing countries.  Global economy is growing in chemical intensification because of increased production/consumption volumes, the shift of production from developed to developing countries and the continuing increase in chemical emissions, especially in the developing regions.

“Chemical use in developing countries is influenced both by countries’ needs for additional production domestically, and by production related to trade/export. Factors influencing the location of growth of chemical use in manufacturing include proximity to raw materials, proximity to final markets and a suite of other factors. The worldwide expansion of the chemical industries has been driven in large part by the emergence of multinational chemical companies as companies located in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) invested in production facilities in non-OECD countries.” (Source: Global Chemicals Outlook – Towards Sound Management of Chemicals, Synthesis Report for Decision-Makers, pub by the United Nations Environment Program, 2012)

The size of the global CPI is immense (Figure 1 and 2), expected to grow to over US $6 trillion by 2020.  Studies projecting trends into the mid century expect a global growth rate around 3% to 2050.  The growth rate in the developed countries and regions (N. America, EU, Japan and Australia) is expected to average in the range of 2-3% annually lagging behind that of developing economies in S. America, Asia, Middle East and Africa (4-8%).  India and China are expected to be the growth leaders through 2020.


Image Source: Global Chemicals Outlook – Towards Sound Management of Chemicals, Synthesis Report for Decision-Makers, pub by the United Nations Environment Program, 2012

According to OECD projections by 2020 developing countries would be home to 31% of global chemical production, and 33% of global chemical consumption.

Health and Environmental Issues

The CPI wrestle with the availability of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, safety, environmental impact and health and economics of the chemicals it produces. Environmental emissions and their impact on people and wildlife loom larger than ever. The importance of these issues has grown in the recent decades because of the widespread attention they have received.  Human health has become a focal point of chemical emissions.  “There is increasing recognition among governments, non-governmental organizations and the public that human health and the environment are being compromised by the current arrangements for managing chemicals and hazardous wastes” (Source: Global Chemicals Outlook – Towards Sound Management of Chemicals, Synthesis Report for Decision-Makers, published by the United Nations Environment Program, 2012).  That is in spite of the fact that chemical processing industries manufacture products vital to human life.

All countries share in health and environmental concerns though they are particularly salient in developing economies that face pressing needs to achieve development, national security and poverty eradication objectives.  One obstacle to integrating the sound management of chemicals into the broader sustainable development agenda is the tendency to address and consider chemicals on a case-by-case basis separate from the economic development agenda. To protect human health and the environment and to fully benefit from the value that chemicals can yield, all countries must include in their economic and social development priorities the means to manage chemicals soundly.

The role of the public in discussions of health and environmental issues related to chemicals has grown significantly in the last two decades.  The availability of means of instantaneous communications has resulted in speedy awareness of those issues globally. Products such as mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers are being purchased and used in regions of the world until recently thought to be too remote. There are many highly publicized examples of the impact of industrial chemical emissions.  Figure 3 shows a reporter sampling water from the Jian River, in Luoyang, China, nicknamed River of Blood because of illegal release of a red dye by a chemical plant.  Figure 4 is a photograph of a massive fish kill in a lake in Wuhan, Central China, because of a toxic chemical release.


Figure 3. Reporter sampling water from Jian River in Luoyang, China (Source: China’s ‘River of Blood:’ Jian Turns Red After Chemical Dump, Dec 16, 2011)


Figure 4. Worker clears dead fish, because of chemical release, out of a lake in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei Province (Source:

Stark scenes such as those in Figures 3 and 4 are rare in the developed countries.  Environmental laws and pressure from the public have compelled the industry to operate cleaner factories.  A great many chemical plants have been moved to developing economies where the environmental rules, if any, have been predominantly lax. A variety of pollution problems have also begun to surface in the developed countries such as USA, often because of illness of populations or animal death.

Old examples of emissions and deadly contaminations include Hooker Chemicals (later acquired by Occidental Chemicals) Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, which resulted in the passing of the Federal Law creating a Superfund to pay for the recovery from environmental disasters. Another episode was exposure of resident of Times Beach, Missouri to Dioxin, a deadly toxin.

Yet another example is General Electric’s dumping of polychlorinated biphenols (PCB’s) in 40 miles of Hudson River in the State of New York. Decontamination of contaminated sites take decades and many continue to date.

Figure 5 shows the Superfund sites in the United States according to their status as defined by US Environmental Protection Agency.


Figure 5. Map of Superfund sites as of October 2013 (Red indicates currently on final National Priority List, yellow is proposed, green is deleted, usually meaning having been cleaned up) (Source: US Environmental protection Agency,

Perhaps the largest modern day disaster occurred on the night of 2–3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.  Over half million people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. The toxic substance made its way into and around the shantytowns located near the plant.  It is estimated 16,000 people lost their lives days to years after the exposure.

A more recent US example is Fracking (hydraulic fracturing of earth), which is a process for gas and oil production.  It consumes massive quantities of water mixed with chemicals. Some 750 chemicals are used in Fracking most of which are kept secret for commercial reasons.  The chemicals known publicly include a number of harmful even toxic substances.  Improper disposal of the spent water has resulted in the contamination of underground water tables and reservoirs.

Another episode is the discovery of a surfactant called C8 or PFOA/APFO in water wells and tables in Ohio, West Virginia and New York states.  PFOA is the abbreviation of perfluorooctanoic acid. APFO is the ammonium salt form of PFOA. This agent has been essential in manufacturing fluoropolymers and coatings for nearly six decades, starting roughly 1950.  In compliance with an agreement with the US Environmental Agency (EPA), the Western and Japanese fluoropolymer manufacturers have replaced C8 but it is apparently still in use in China and India.  Massive lawsuits to the tune of billions of dollars have been brought in the US and expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was promulgated in 1976 in response to the escalating concerns about the effects toxic chemicals pose to humans and the environment.  The legislation intended to give the EPA broad oversight over all aspects of chemical substance management, including manufacturing, importation, processing, distribution, use and disposal.  TSCA was intended to protect both public health and the environment more comprehensively from unreasonable risks of a variety of hazardous materials and wastes, including biological and chemical substances, mixtures and even the byproducts of those materials.  In practice, TSCA was watered down and proved to be virtually toothless.

The picture is changing because of pressure from the public, trade and non-governmental groups. Pressure from Europe to reform TSCA has been felt after the 2007 passing of REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals) and 2006 passing of RoHS, (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) laws by the European Union.  REACH requires data from chemical manufacturers applying a principle of “no data, no market.”  Another factor has been legislative activity at the state level because of public demand. This move has created tens of new rules and requirements in different states adding to the difficulty of conducting business for companies.  RoHS restricts (with exceptions) the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment.  The original six substances regulated to RoHS are: lead, mercury, cadmium (Cd), hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ether.  More chemicals are being added to the RoHS list.  REACH requires companies to comply if they want to do business in the EU region, which has formed the largest economy in the world.

It would be an understatement to say the chemical processing industry would be living through interesting times during the coming years.  An apocryphal Chinese curse is purported to say may you live in interesting times!  We sure will be.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

NOTE: The 2012 United Nations Environment Program report referenced in the text is a major source of this post.

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