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Transition towards a circular economy

Source: VITO Energiebalans Vlaanderen; DG Statistics; calculation essenscia

In a circular economy, resources are no longer wasted, but reused and recirculated as much as feasible and sustainable, thus minimising the use of virgin resources. In the chemical, plastics and life sciences industry, fossil resources (fossil fuel, natural gas, naphta,..) are traditionally the main feedstock for organic products. These resources are used for manufacturing substances and fuels within the sector for a wide array of applications ranging from active molecules in medicines, paints, etc to a wide array of possible plastics uses. Whilst worldwide 95% of extracted oil barrels are used for fuels and only 5% as feedstock, the use of fossil resources is much more sustainable in Belgium. In 2017, 99% of petroleum (mainly naphtha) and 39% of the natural gas consumption of the sector were converted into higher value materials.

While alternatives for fossil feedstock (fossil fuel, natural gas, naphta,..) are being developed, mainly biomass, recycled plastic materials but also CCU, closing the loop for CO2 to convert it to a feedstock, we currently do not have complete numbers to measure these evolutions within the Belgian sector. On EU level, the share of biobased chemicals compared to overall chemical production was estimated at 3% in a 2019 JRC study, mainly using vegetable oil, wood or sugar/starch as feedstock depending on product category1. However, more data is needed, and we hope that it will be available for a next edition of the sustainability report. Also, we need to acknowledge that those alternative feedstocks are currently not sufficient in volumes to fulfill the high demand for chemicals driven by global rising demand in chemicals which is expected to double by 20302, mainly due to a growing world population with higher living standards.

In the meantime, we use the amount of fossil resources used as feedstock in the chemicals industry per ton of produced product as a proxy indicator for its resource efficiency. The indicator shows that whilst the use of fossil feedstock remains quite stable, production continues to rise indicating a more efficient use of fossil resources.

Continued investments in innovation are thus needed to advance in alternative feedstocks and to increase performance further in more efficient processes contributing to a reduced sector’s footprint. This is reflected in the strategic priorities of the spearhead clusters Catalisti in Flanders and BioWin & GreenWin in the Walloon region that, stimulate collaborative innovation projects in these fields.

It is important to acknowledge the existing efforts in sharing, re-using and exchanging resources within chemical companies that contribute to the transition towards a circular economy. Indeed, for the chemicals, plastics and life sciences industry, the optimisation of manufacturing processes has always been a priority. The Belgian petrochemicals cluster is a prime example of this, characterised by its high interconnectivity, in which side-streams of one production unit are used as raw materials for others, where energy is recuperated and utilities are often shared to increase efficiency

  1. Spekreijse, J., Lammens, T., Parisi, C., Ronzon, T., Vis, M., Insights into the European market of bio-based chemicals. Analysis based on ten key product categories, EUR 29581 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2019, ISBN 978-92-79-98420-4, doi:10.2760/549564, JRC112989.
  2. Global Chemicals Outlook II: “The size of the global chemical industry exceeded United States dollars 5 trillion in 2017. It is projected to double by 2030. Consumption and production are rapidly increasing in emerging economies.”

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