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Renewable raw materials – why?

Didn't synthetic dyestuffs make it possible that even the labouring poor, who until the end of the 18th century had to rely on the clothing depots of charitable institutions, or wear second-hand or stolen clothes,1  could dress in colourful fashion? Didn't synthetic nylon, polyester, acrylic, and polyolefin fibres more readily pick-up different dyes and prove to be more durable, waterproof and stain resist than most natural fibres?

Hasn't chemical science turned coal, crude oil, natural gas, and shale gas, originally just good to burn for energy, into valuable raw materials?

Farming probably involved more work than hunting and gathering, but it is thought to have provided 10 to 100 times more calories per acre – and this difference might account for the beginning of civilisation.2 

Haven't famines been common across all regions and continents of the Earth3  and have famines not decimated the world's population throughout history – caused by climatic events, drought, outbreaks of diseases, insect pests and plagues, but very often deliberately caused or silently tolerated by those in power or those who wanted to conquer a ruling power?

Was it not only in the last hundred years that the development of industrial manufacturing processes for synthetic fertilisers (ammonia, nitric acid, and ammonium nitrate; Wilhelm Ostwald, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1909; Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918, Carl Bosch and Friedrich Bergius, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1931), the systematic use of mechanised agricultural machinery, modern scientific methods of farming, applied genetics, and targeted plant breeding contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production termed the Green Revolution4  (Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize 1970) and made possible the reduction of mortality, the extension of life expectancy, a breath-taking development of the world population?

However, even as early as the 1970s, warnings were coming from various quarters that the massive exploitation of fossil resources,5  the unthinking use of fertilisers and pesticides,6  and, years later, the realisation that uncontrolled discharges of chemical waste and spent plastics7  could become a threat to the foundations of the existing world economy, to the ecosystem Earth, indeed to human civilisation. These concerns have been taken up when the 1983 General Assembly of the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro decided to forecast, on a global scale, how man–made activities would affect the environment of the Earth encompassing the industrial as well as the social and economic aspects and, as a result, created the sustainable development concept.8  This concept was meant to provide a long-term balance between the environment, the economy, and the social well-being of humanity. It thus takes up the principle of sustainable forestry defined by Hannß Carl von Carlowitz, which meant that logging and reforestation, i.e., the use and cultivation of forestry resources must be in balance.9  Solutions for maintaining this balance are still pending today. Why should the inhabitants of the tropical rainforests give up the prospect of enjoying the amenities of urban life in order to save the world's climate? Why shouldn't instead, for example, the longleaf pine forests in the USA formerly stretching from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf Coast to Texas, lovingly called the “great piney woods” be reforested and left to run wild again in order to save the global CO2 balance? However, efforts in this direction have been initiated in other parts of the world, such as the Barrage vert () in Algeria10  and, South of the Sahara Desert, the Great Green Wall for Sahara and the Sahel Initiative,11  the Chinese Green Great Wall12  (Three-North Shelterbelt Development Program, 三北防護林工程/三北防护林工程), and the Green Belt Movement13  in Kenya (Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize 2004). Further afforestation programs are underway in many countries around the world at national or community level or funded by NGOs. However, it is also worth noting that the human population meanwhile requires not less than 7% of the land – a percentage that is constantly growing at the expense of the arable landmass. In fact, the usable land area has been diminishing for years.14 

The chemical industry, with regard to sustainability, sustainable operation, and resource conservation, lies in the cross fields with fuel and energy on the one hand and food and feed on the other, with the larger partner in each case consuming about 85–95% of carbonic raw material sources, that way ensuring cost-effective supply. Accordingly, despite its importance for the use, further development, and value creation, the chemical industry has, with a few exceptions, only limited influence on exploration, extraction, and production quantities of fossil or the agronomic cultivation of renewable raw materials.

So, why renewable raw materials?

The German Verband der Chemischen Industrie (VCI) has declared as a ‘Core statement’ that renewable raw materials have been established for a long time in the chemical industry15  – which is also comprehensively outlined in the following chapters of this book. However, the word ‘consumer’ does not appear once in the VCI paper. It is therefore worth pointing out the enormous effects that the Rio Conference and the sustainable development concept have had on public opinion worldwide. This has started a political debate and thinking process and beyond that has created consumer consciousness emanating in a global megatrend called Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) and resulted in increasing pressure from consumers on manufacturers to produce bio-derived chemicals as replacements for fossil resources and substances now considered to be hazardous to us or to the environment. The move towards renewable raw materials is considered to have a number of advantages:

  • Use of renewable and expendable resources.

  • Less dependency on limited fossil resources.

  • The potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • The potential for sustainable industrial production.

  • Potentially improved community health.

  • Support of rural development.

  • Increased industrial competitiveness through innovative eco-efficient products.16 

The European Commission sees products based on renewable raw materials as one of the most promising future markets, with a high potential for innovation.17 

Furthermore, the exploration of industrial and urban food waste as renewable raw materials add to the diversification of the raw materials base for chemistry.18 

For surface coatings, printing inks, and adhesives in particular, renewable raw materials have always been state of the art until today. However, in the context of modern consumer demands, they are gaining new momentum inspired by a changed view of nature as a source of ideas worth mimicking,19  of ‘white biotechnology’ as a pool for innovative synthesis methods,20  and by the development of de-localised biorefineries as raw material-related unit operations.21 

Rainer Höfer

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