The complexity of sustainability: the need to zoom in – and out

The complexity of sustainability: the need to zoom in – and out

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December 18th, 2019

By Frank Brouwer, Senior Green Technology Chemist at Stahl

I spend every day making materials more sustainable, something that involves learning about processes and products in the circular economy and understanding the social aspects of sustainability. What I see is that while most people agree that, in a sustainable world, people, the environment and the economy must be in balance, the fierce debate about sustainability makes clear how complex it is to agree on how to do this. And if experts can't figure it out, it is even more challenging for non-experts. Clearly, we need to discuss “eco-confusion” and the need to “zoom in and out” to help us make conscious choices regarding sustainability.

If you follow the news, it can feel like a different environmental problem gets added to the list every week. To CO2 emissions and global warming we have now added other problems, such as deforestation, nitrogen emissions, phosphate ceilings, microplastics, biodiversity loss, acidification, water scarcity and air pollution. But these are no random environmental issues. In 2009 a group of 28 scientists identified nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the earth system. These scientists proposed planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.1 Clearly, if we want to live in balance with the earth, we must consider these boundaries and our relationship to them. The apparent complexity makes clear just why so many of us suffer from “eco-confusion”. It is impossible to figure out what a “green future” will look like unless you a), have all the information at hand and b), look at specific aspects of sustainability individually as well.

Phantom solutions

The confusion about what sustainability involves plus our desire to act fast means sustainability problems are now being over-simplified. The result: well-intended solutions that are worse for the environment than the problems they were meant to solve. Clearly, focusing on only one aspect of a problem only solves one part of it. You have a kind of phantom solution, because every adjustment you make to improve a product’s sustainability impacts on another aspect, often negatively. Instead, you need to also look at the connections between sustainability aspects.

Take PET bottle recycling, for example. Countries like Norway, Germany and the Netherlands are doing very well. Around 97% of PET bottles are returned for recycling. However, only 25-30% of used PET bottles actually end up in a new PET bottle. Mechanical recycling changes the structure of the plastic. These minute changes cause a discoloration of the new bottle. And that doesn't sell. The leftover material can be and is used for other applications, but it is not a closed system and each new bottle still requires virgin plastic. Zoom in and you see that recycling PET bottles is not as circular or “closed loop” as we thought.

That is why we are seeing a switch to aluminium packaging, whose recyclability is much higher. An aluminium can contains up to 70% recycled aluminium. However, mining and producing new aluminium has a huge impact on the environment. So, what is more sustainable – plastic or aluminium? The answer is not simple. It requires way more knowledge about how a product is produced, the raw materials used, how long it will last, the impact on the environment of transporting it and the effect on the environment at the end of its life. Equally, it is just as important to identify how a product or process could evolve and so be made even more sustainable in the longer term. With PET, for example, you now see that chemical recycling is on the rise, which makes it possible to recycle PET 100%.

Close the knowledge gap

The problem is that we don’t have enough information to make informed choices. We simply can’t answer many questions yet. This knowledge gap is our biggest challenge. We need research. We need to work together to create transparency about materials and production processes. We need to understand each other's products and the entire chain, and what really happens to a product after use, like the PET bottle. As an article I read recently put it: “True sustainability lies in deep knowledge of materials and processes”.2 So, to really move forward, we have to both zoom in and zoom out to understand the different aspects to sustainability.

Zoom in to properly analyse sustainability

Stahl is a chemical company that specialises in surface technology. We develop products and processes that add properties to everyday materials. For example, we can make materials last longer by protecting them against life-shortening environmental factors like dirt, moisture and wear, and we can increase aesthetic value by making them feel softer, reducing the gloss or neutralising an odour. However, although we already started our journey to make our products more sustainable 40 years ago (by replacing solvent products with water-based products), we took sustainability to the next level relatively recently. We defined Responsible Chemistry within our sustainability strategy in order to guide us and make sure we are working on the right projects We aim to close the knowledge gap and help clear up the current eco-confusion.

Within Stahl, we zoom in on three pillars of responsible chemistry: using low-impact manufacturing chemicals; replacing finite petrochemicals with infinitely renewable sources with the help of biotechnology; and supporting the transition to a circular economy by understanding the whole value chain of our products – including recycling and composting – and so matching usage with end-of-life. Important aspects of responsible chemistry are to improve energy efficiency, get a better grip at waste management, and reduce the exposure to emissions and overall lowering our environmental footprint.

There are still plenty of questions to answer within each pillar, especially where new materials are concerned, and it is our responsibility to evaluate these materials on their strengths and weaknesses and propose solutions where possible. To help us research and develop new products and processes, we have established 12 principles that guide us in making conscious choices. We also work with our customers and other partners so that, step by step, we zoom in on the entire production process, from where we can increase specific sustainability aspects.

Zoom out to examine your judgment

The combination of a desire to move fast before being totally clear about what actions are and are not sustainable creates a further major risk: that we unwittingly make the wrong choices. By deliberately zooming in on selective aspects of sustainability, parties with vested interests can influence us, either by accident or for their own political or economic self-interest. Typically, these parties are not necessarily interested in finding a solution to the overall sustainability issue. This is why it is just as important to occasionally zoom out and view sustainability from a distance. Is what is being said true and are all the connections fairly represented? Because, as I mentioned earlier, a change to one aspect of the chain can have a negative influence on another.

An example is the discussion about leather versus vegan alternatives. What is more sustainable? What is better for the environment? You often hear talk about the alleged negative aspects of leather production, such as deforestation to support cattle ranching, water pollution and animal welfare. Yet leather is a by-product of a still-growing meat industry – animals are not generally raised to make leather. And what about vegan alternatives? These are often made from petrochemical plastics, which may have an even greater impact on the environment. It’s not yet easy to know the right answer. Look solely at animal welfare and you will probably favour vegan materials. But if you are anti-plastic, then these kinds of vegan materials run counter to your beliefs. Looking at the production chain and end-of-life management raises further questions. For instance, what is the respective impact of processing leather and vegan materials? What would be the impact of composting animal skins if they weren’t turned into leather? Can vegan materials be truly reused or recycled?

I see this phenomenon – only considering selective aspects – a lot in the discussions about what is sustainable and what is not. There is eco-confusion everywhere. But rather than acknowledging this, people defend their position almost to the death, even though no one can yet say exactly what we should do to achieve a sustainable world. With so much information incomplete or simply unavailable at present, I would like to call on everyone to look at sustainability with a novice’s gaze, asking what we know now and how we can use this information.

Learn to value products again

Finally, there is one other development that is important when discussing sustainability: our increasing disconnection with the products we purchase and use. Where once products were produced locally, and you knew the baker and butcher personally, today there are children who don’t know where milk comes from. As the world becomes more complex, we have become a disposable society. Everything is within reach and we buy things without considering how they are made, where they come from and how long they will last.

We now know the consequences of such materialism, which makes reducing consumption an obvious way to reduce our impact on the planet. But how realistic is it to think that, with a growing global middle class and corresponding purchasing power, we will consume less? So as well as learning to value products again, we need to make sure we have the information we need to make more conscious choices which will reduce the impact of the products we buy. We need to escape eco-confusion.

The key to escaping eco-confusion is to understand that the theories around climate change and environmental impact are complex and hard to grasp, and that it is okay not to fully understand. At the same time, we have to avoid falling into the trap of believing every “self-evident”, “simple” and “obvious” solution, because, often, they are none of those. Instead, in creating a sustainable social system, we need to learn to avoid knee-jerk reactions, dig deeper, think wider and accept that we will make mistakes. If we remember to zoom in and zoom out, we’ll get there. I’m sure of it.

1Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.

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The complexity of sustainability: the need to zoom in – and out
Frank Brouwer
Renewable Chemistry Specialist