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Today, Coming Clean released a paper outlining ten steps needed to transform the chemical sector by replacing hazardous petrochemicals with safer alternatives. Fundamental changes to the chemical sector are needed because, as scientists recently confirmed, chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary,” threatening the stability of Earth’s life-supporting ecosystems. The chemical sector is also a major contributor of greenhouse gasses that fuel the climate crisis.
Seven high-hazard and fossil fuel intensive “platform” chemicals - methanol, ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, and xylene - which are the basis for 90% of the chemicals on the market today, must be replaced with lower hazard, non-fossil-fuel derived substitutes, the paper urges. Benzene and butadiene, for example, are commonly released from chemical production sites in the US with devastating impacts on environmental justice communities in Louisville, Houston and beyond.
“The petrochemical sector’s reliance on fossil-fuel feedstocks and manufacturing processes that have evolved little in a hundred years is a massive barrier for change,” said Beverley Thorpe, Program Manager at Clean Production Action, who authored the paper. “But we must now envisage smaller scale distributed chemical production that involves close input from surrounding communities, is rooted in green chemistry and green engineering principles, and manufactures chemicals with low hazards.”
Some platform chemicals like benzene can be made with alternative biobased feedstocks instead of fossil fuels. However, the paper argues that chemical producers must prioritize both climate/carbon impacts and toxicity. Using renewable feedstocks to produce inherently hazardous chemicals like benzene and hazardous plastics like PVC is a false solution. “Benzene will still be a carcinogen regardless of how it is produced,” said Thorpe.
“Producing the same cancer-causing chemical with wood pulp instead of fossil fuels won’t help fenceline communities,” said Eboni Cochran, a Louisville resident and organizer with Rubbertown Emergency ACTion, who reviewed the paper. “Those facilities are still going to be in our backyard. The real solution is to stop producing chemicals that cause cancer, and move all production away from where human beings live.”
A recent global inventory lists more than 350,000 chemicals and mixtures of chemicals registered for commercial production and use worldwide, which is more than three times as many as is commonly estimated. The vast majority of chemicals in use have little or no data on their impacts to health and the environment, yet the production of chemicals and plastics is set to expand. The paper calls for prohibiting the planned expansion of both petrochemicals and plastics production and reducing the amount and complexity of chemicals in circulation, by eliminating all non-essential uses. The European Union’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, which aims to phase out the entire fluorinated carbon class of PFAS chemicals, serves as a valuable example.
Other recommendations include ways to financially reward innovation in safer chemicals production by removing subsidies on fossil fuel developments, taxing the use of hazardous chemicals and integrating chemical footprint reduction goals and investment in safer chemicals into all Environment Social and Governance reporting.
“New investments and innovation in safer chemistry should benefit local communities,” said Veena Singla, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who also reviewed the paper. “With the leadership of impacted communities, we can transform the chemical sector so it supports the health, wealth and abundance of both people and the planet.”
“Transforming the Chemical Industry: Safer Substitutes for a Non-Toxic Economy” is the third in a collection of policy papers that supplement the Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals, a platform for transforming the chemical sector so that it is no longer a source of harm, that has been endorsed by over 125 climate, health and environmental justice organizations.
The Louisville Charter is named after the area of Louisville, Kentucky, known as “Rubbertown,” where industrial facilities have historically released millions of pounds/kgs per year of toxic air emissions into the surrounding community which is predominantly Black. In May 2004, Louisville organizers convened a broad coalition of grassroots, labor, health and environmental justice groups whose common goal was to pass government policies that protect human health and the environment from exposure to unnecessary harmful chemicals, which initiated a collaborative process to create the original Louisville Charter For Safer Chemicals. The Charter was updated and re-released by Coming Clean in December, 2021, and continues to serve as a shared platform for change for over 125 signatory organizations. Learn more.
Coming Clean is a US-based collaborative network of frontline community activists, environmental justice organizations, and policy, science and market experts, committed to transforming the chemical industry so that it is no longer a source of harm. For over twenty years, Coming Clean has fought to end legacy pollution in communities of color, ban toxic pesticides that harm farmworkers and their families, regulate hazardous facilities, and end the sale of unsafe products in dollar stores and other retailers across the United States.