AFPM-IPC, '19 – Diverse panel deliberates on Sustainability in the Petrochemical Industry and beyond

by Sumedha Sharma, Technical Editor, Hydrocarbon Processing

Echoing the need of the petrochemical industry and our planet in general, a panel of women leaders from different facets of the industry, discussed the imperative question of sustainability. The panel was moderated by James Becker, Vice President, Polymers and Sustainability, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company. Panelists included Sheryl Corrigan, Sr. VP of EHS compliance and Ethics, Koch industries; Rachel A. Meidl, Fellow, James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy, Center for Energy Studies, Rice University; and Danielle Joseph, Investment Officer at Closed Loop Partners.

Becker shared that, with his 15 years of association with the polymer industry, his perspective of sustainability is weighed around plastic waste and the environment. However, he went on to add that, “Sustainability is not about plastic alone, it’s a word that can mean a variety of different things, it relates to life cycle management, energy and water usage, greenhouse emissions, end of life issues for finished goods, plastic goods and others.”

Defining Sustainability – securing our future

Becker opened the panel to discuss how the petrochemical industry must define sustainability and how is this industry part of the solution to life cycle management issues. He invited the panelists to define what sustainability means with respect to each of their industries and domains.

Sheryl talked about Sustainability in the context of stewardship. She said that “Stewardship is about regard for our resources and using them efficiently and wisely such that they are available for the future.’ Sustainability, to Sheryl, “is expected in our communities, operations, supply chains, value chains and also for example, with respect to our regulators.” She said that the petrochemical industry has been engaged in sustainability for a long time with every personnel working hard in their capacity so that every single drop of crude is used and purposed into a final product for use.

Rachel maintained that sustainability is difficult to align around because of lack of a universal definition. Rachel’s initial disposition on sustainability was “focused on environmental factors, preserving future generations, and trying to maintain ecological equilibrium.” “However,” she added, “the philosophical and analytical framework on sustainability is broadening, with companies now thinking in terms of a triple bottom line – People, Planet, and Profit,” and how a lot of that is driven by market forces. She defined three measures for sustainability: ‘Environmental, Social and Governmental,’ stressing that - beyond environmental commitments, sustainability also encompasses societal commitments and geopolitical situations and outcomes.

Danielle reinstated that sustainability was about ensuring that our resources are not depleted and unavailable for our future. She said that effective waste management, re-purposing, and reprogramming plastic into new products was an example of sustainability integrated business management and bottom line practice. “If you are reusing something, you inherently reduce the input costs you had for making a product in the first place,” she said, stressing that circular economies are more environmentally and financially efficient than conventional linear systems.

Role of regulations

Sheryl shared her belief in the need for regulations stating that, “we need to have a guide” and that regulations kicking in encourages maintenance of performance standards and “unlocks potentials.” “However,” she added, “they need to be performance based and not overly descriptive from a technology standpoint.” Even so, the industry must look ahead and innovate rather than waiting for sustainability regulations.

Danielle said that she sees the world following the trends that are made in Europe and that the industry is also taking initiatives to design sustainable products following consumer demand. She believed that there is a place for single use plastics. “But that place is either in the recycling stream or at the end of their use, where they are not harming the environment, and they are being used intelligently.” She stressed that the group gathered at IPC should be the leaders and not the reactors to regulations.

Rachel asserted that the need is to gravitate towards circular economy and sustainability rather than abstinence from use of plastic. “We are going to have to learn how to re-engineer plastics so they can be broken down to their components and then re-manufactured into new products,” she said. Both Rachel and Danielle emphasized that managing plastics – redesigning, re-purposing, recycling and beyond, is a more effective and feasible alternative to banning the use of plastics. Rachel also commented on how regulations can have unintended consequences of stifling R&D targeted towards creating better alternative technologies. “This is especially true as we move towards circular economy where innovation will be the key,” she said.

Educating the industry

The panel asserted the belief that transparency regarding policies and carbon footprint are keys to meeting up with the looming sustainability challenge. In their concerted efforts to meet consumer demand, the industry must also be open to feedback, adaptation and a constant drive for change. However, it is challenging to deal with alternative solutions that are in conceptual stage. Dwelling on the environmental concerns with biodegradable polymers like PLA, Rachel emphasized that, sometimes alternate technologies might pose greater unprecedented risk to sustainability goals, than the original problem that needs to be solved. Therefore, the petrochemical industry needs to act in a proactive and responsible manner to find solutions – “that this industry alone is quite capable of.”

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