Time use science go full circle

Time to use science to go full circle

6:04 AM, 10th June 2019
Time to use science to go full circle

By Helen Mets and Sjoerd Dijkstra

With the world facing defining challenges – climate change, plastic pollution, and natural resource depletion – it is more important than ever that manufacturing industries leverage the latest scientific innovations to reduce their carbon footprints. DSM Resins & Functional Materials is leading the way in accelerating this carbon footprint reduction by committing to using at least 30 percent of its raw materials from recycled or bio-based sources and phasing out its use of chemicals of high concern.

“What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth,” warned the celebrated David Attenborough in his latest documentary, Our Planet. “With the effects of climate change becoming ever greater, the things we do now, and in the next few years, will profoundly affect the next few thousand years. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilization and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Strong words from the usually cool-headed naturalist. And yet, of course, there is robust scientific evidence to support his case. Around the world, the average sea level rise in the past decade is double that of the last century, 10 of the warmest years on Earth have occurred since 1998, and – if current trends continue – our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight in 2050. And, as Attenborough himself pointed out, “in reply, we need to move beyond guilt or blame, and get on with the practical tasks at hand.”

Businesses need to step up – now

Whether or not you believe in climate change, businesses and corporations have a special responsibility to take care of our Earth and help address the world’s critical challenges. In particular, the chemical industry – which currently is responsible for an eighth of global industrial carbon emissions – needs to step up its sustainability efforts to help meet the Paris Agreement goals. Moving away from highly polluting upstream processes, specifically, will be a key challenge that the industry must address to ensure a brighter future.

As a company we take the wider social responsibilities seriously. Above all, we have extensive experience and expertise in the technologies that are the building blocks for sustainable coatings products. Through our updated strategy, we are accelerating the shift we began decades ago to deliver alternatives to solvent-based solutions, such as water-, powder-, plant- and UV-based solutions.  

As such, we have put in place a series of ambitious sustainability targets not only because we want to guide the development of our business over the coming years, but because ‘sustainability’ makes good business sense. Our targets will help us to stay accountable and focused as we try to improve the sustainability value of our product portfolio and the environmental impact of our operations. Our commitments have now placed sustainability at the core of our growth strategy: just as our focus on sustainability has been a key enabler in the past, it will define our path forward. Specifically, we aim to be the preferred partner for companies seeking high-performance, sustainable coatings solutions.

In addition to completely phasing out chemicals of high concern from our product portfolio by 2025, we have committed to reducing our indirect value chain emissions by 28 percent per ton of product produced by 2030, compared to our 2016 benchmark. This is particularly important given that, on average, about 90 percent of the carbon footprint of every kilogram of product we sell is caused by the raw materials we use. We have also committed to ensuring that, by 2030, at least 30 percent of the raw materials we source are bio-based and/or recycled materials.

Redesigning for a circular economy

Meeting these ambitious targets – and, more widely, providing a valuable contribution to tackling our world’s challenges – will involve a change of mindset and the courage to step outside our comfort zones. It is clear that solving the world’s problems cannot be done with the same approaches that helped create them, so – where necessary – we must all be ready to embrace radically innovative solutions. 

Radical innovations like those developed by DSM-Niaga®. Niaga®, which is the word ‘again’ backward, is a revolutionary philosophy that looks to rethink how we design and create products, with an emphasis on using smarter, simpler materials. These fully recyclable products do not compromise on performance and produce zero VOC emissions during the manufacturing process.

The first product to have come through the Niaga® model is a 100 percent recyclable carpet. Traditionally, recycling carpet has been difficult and costly – this is because separating the many component materials is highly complex and involves hazardous chemicals. In the US alone, over 1.8 million kilograms of carpet are thrown away each year, 95 percent of which ends up being incinerated or used as landfill. 

At DSM, our scientists have been able to redesign traditional carpet-making processes, making this complex product easier to disassemble and recycle. Niaga® technology uses only pure materials in the lowest possible diversity, resulting in a mono-material polyester carpet. If we want to add other materials, we use a special reversible adhesive, based on DSM resins that can be decoupled on demand.

In this way, the raw materials required in Niaga® carpet manufacturing processes are part of a closed-loop concept, with no unnecessary waste streams. This helps minimize natural resource consumption, lower energy consumption, and reduces the impact on the environment, compared with traditional carpet manufacturing practices.

Innovating with plant-based resins

Another of our innovative solutions driving our progress in lowering the impact of our raw material consumption is Decovery®. This unique family of paint resins for indoor and outdoor applications contains nearly 50 percent plant-based content, enabling a carbon footprint reduction of up to 34 percent compared to alternative coating systems.

How was it possible to turn plants into paint resin? Well, our scientists take the basic plant materials and convert them into bio-based building blocks about one-seventh of the width of a human hair. These structures are in turn used to create high-performance, bio-based polymers with a wide range of properties, which can be used to form the eco-friendly Decovery® paint resins.

Importantly, the performance of Decovery® is at least equal to (and in some cases better than) traditional waterborne equivalents. Specifically, this eco-friendly paint resin is durable and chemical-resistant; it provides a great finish with no yellowing effect, and feels smooth to the touch. 

But we are not stopping here. Our long-term ambition is to create a 100 percent plant-based resin and reduce the carbon footprint of our products even further. However, to make that ambition a reality, we need the paint industry to join forces and drive this movement forward. Only by working together, by collaborating and developing solutions through cooperation, can we meet the clear and growing demand for paint coatings that both respect nature and deliver high levels of functional and aesthetic performance.

Science offers us a lifeline

As shown by circular-design and bio-based products like Decovery® and Niaga®, science can enable many technical solutions that offer us a lifeline in the struggle to address and mitigate climate change and natural resource depletion. The innovation of the chemicals industry, in particular, can play a crucial role in reshaping the impact of civilization’s consumerist patterns on the environment. 

And – in light of the critical time sensitivities we are facing to tackle many of the world’s challenges – companies need not only to be ready to step up to their social responsibilities and seize the relevant business opportunities, but also to be bold in setting their own sustainability target and goals, working across the value chain to achieve them.  Only in this way, can we hope to revert the damage to the environment civilization is causing – and, in line with DSM’s purpose, create brighter lives for all.

Authors: Helen Mets is President and Sjoerd Dijkstra is Sustainability Marketer at DSM Resins & Functional Materials.

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