Chemical innovations for a circular economy
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By Isabelle Alenus
Isabelle Alenus works in Communications at FEICA, the Association of the European Adhesive & Sealant Industry. She holds Master’s degrees in Communications and in Environmental studies from Liverpool and Durham University respectively. In light of the transition to an increasingly circular economy, FEICA actively encourages the industry to engage in the development of adhesive and sealant solutions that enable customers and industries to operate more sustainably.
Innovative solutions in chemicals are essential to the circular economy and to our health, but need to stretch across the entire value chain to deliver what they promise.
Chemical innovations for a circular economy
In 2015, when the European Commission adopted its ambitious Circular Economy Package (CEP) to generate sustainable growth, the adhesives and sealants industry was already a strong advocate of lifecycle analysis. For a circular economy, products need to last longer, enable energy efficiency, need to be repairable where possible, and waste needs to be reused or recycled.
The entire value chain needs to be considered in order to ensure the circularity of a product. In addition, to keep consumers and the planet safe, no harmful chemicals should be used during any of the stages of production. The adhesives and sealants industry creates products that make everyday items safer, lighter, smaller, cleaner, more durable, and is therefore an excellent enabler of a circular economy. Since 2015, it has continued to demonstrate that it is a strong driver for both innovation and design. Adhesives and sealants are everywhere, often unseen, yet they increasingly play a pivotal role thanks to technological advances driven by a new impetus following the ratification of the CEP. REACH, the European Union regulation, run by ECHA, and adopted to protect human health and the environment, helps companies to implement the EU’s ground-breaking chemicals legislation.
The history of bonding spans millennia and is a fascinating tribute to human ingenuity. However, most of the inventions that contribute to society today began in the 1930s with the rise of modern chemistry. It is thanks to high-tech chemical innovations in adhesives and sealants, for instance, that the wall panels of aeroplanes offer excellent resistance to high and low temperatures, making aircraft safer. Innovations in our industry also help to make vehicles lighter and smaller, saving fuel and reducing emissions, make buildings more thermally efficient and stronger, giving us cleaner air and more durable homes, and enable the replacement of worn out shoe soles, reducing waste.
To ensure full circularity, innovations need to stretch across the entire value chain. More technologies are being developed to support circular approaches, enabling or enhancing recyclability from concept to the completion of a product. One such area of innovation is the ‘debonding-on-command’ type application, which enable the separation of components for repair or recycling. Our industry is keen to co-operate with all actors within the value chains in the design phase of products in order to optimise their end-of-life solutions, and material durability must be considered in product design.
Aside from material and energy efficiency and repairing and recycling, reuse is an additional necessity for a circular economy. A good example of adhesives in the reusable sector, is ‘wet glue’. This type of adhesive is primarily used to label glass and plastic containers with paper labels in the beverage industry. When bottles are used in the reusable sector, the adhesive must be alkaline-soluble and non-toxic. Only then can there be a smooth process in the bottle- cleaning machine, ensuring the efficient implementation of environmentally-responsible and reusable processes.
Adhesives and sealants often constitute only a small percentage of the final product they are incorporated into. For example, tiny amounts of specialised adhesives hold our mobile phones together and help with heat dissipation. Nevertheless, they play a crucial role in many applications, enabling the sustainability benefits of the product, particularly in terms of the substrates they are required to bond, the efficiency of the manufacturing process they are used on, the end use of the bonded article, its durability (giving products a much longer life), and the opportunity to recycle the materials used at the end of its useful life. Our industry can therefore meet all the of the requirements for a circular economy. Efficient EU-wide legislation will safeguard our health.
How FEICA fosters innovation and promotes health and safety today
Good communication along the entire supply chain – from raw materials suppliers to end-users - is essential to guarantee safety. FEICA and its members collaborate with supply chain partners to make sure that the raw materials we use are safe and sustainable, and that the products we manufacture are too. We also provide information and guidance to help our customers use those products safely and sustainably. To help improve communication along the supply chain, FEICA (together with other industry sectors) has developed several tools and comprehensive guidance documents, which can be found on the FEICA website at www.feica.eu. Our ‘Good Practice’ stories, championing sustainability in the adhesives and sealants industry, are available on the dedicated webpage.
Infographic: Adhesives and sealants enable more sustainable products and enhance circularity along their life cycles
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