Consumer goods giants team up for greener chemicals drive

Unilever and Crown Paints are among the members of a new task force exploring how to make the polymers commonly used in consumer products - often based on fossil fuel derivatives - more sustainable.

PLFs are found in products including paint, cosmetics, shampoos and adhesives. They are classed as 'low environmental concern' in terms of toxicity, but bear a high carbon footprint and are hard-to-recycle. 

PLFs are found in products including paint, cosmetics, shampoos and adhesives. They are classed as 'low environmental concern' in terms of toxicity, but bear a high carbon footprint and are hard-to-recycle. 

Convened by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the new task force will work to scale up innovation across the field of polymers in liquid formations (PLFs). Such chemicals are the ‘building blocks of many products, from shampoo and cosmetics, to paints and adhesives, but often bear a high carbon footprint as they are typically derived from fossil fuels.

Moreover, PLFs are classed as hard-to-recycle due to a lack of mature technologies. The RSC estimates that more than 36.25 mullion tonnes of PLFs are recovered after use worldwide each year, but that only a small proportion of the materials can be re-circulated.

With these challenges in mind, the task force has set out a string of initial priorities. These include establishing new “innovation networks” between academics, policymakers and the private sector. Key research themes and priorities will be jointly developed in the coming months.

Both bio-based and biodegradable alternatives to fossil-based PLFs, and new methods to recycle and resuse existing fossil-based PLFs, will be explored.

Unilever, Croda, Scott Bader, Crown Paints and Afton Chemical are the founding members of the task force. The RSC estimates that the global PLFs industry is worth some $125bn and is urging other organisations to sign up. As well as consumer goods giants and chemical firms, other sectors covered by the PLFs include automotive, agriculture and wastewater treatment.

“There are technical challenges in creating sustainable alternatives, but overcoming these challenges would offer colossal sustainability benefits, which is why we are forming this task force,” the RSC’s president professor Tom Welton said.

“With some of the world’s largest players in this sector joining us to tackle this issue, we have a fantastic opportunity to make real and lasting change. But these are just first steps – solutions will only come through the concerted action of academia, industry and civil society.”

Carbon Rainbow

The news of the task force’s launch comes after founder member Unilever pledged to remove all virgin, fossil-based carbon from cleaning and laundry products by 2030. This covers PLFs.

The FMCG giant is using a “carbon rainbow” framework to begin scaling up alternatives. This framework includes “blue” carbon from marine sources, “green” carbon from land-based bio-sources, grey carbon from waste material recovery centres and purple carbon from carbon capture and storage facilities.

To this latter point, Unilever has successfully developed its first laundry capsule using emissions captured from heavy industry, through a partnership with LanzaTech. The innovative capsules will go on sale in Asia this year.

You can find out more about how the scaling processes could work in edie’s recent video interview with Unilever’s Home Care's R&D Director Ian Howell.

Sarah George



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