Sustainable Chemistry

coloured liquids in flasksClick to enlarge
Chemicals influence our life.
Source: CC Vision

Mankind needs to transform its economy towards sustainability and a circular economy, because current development is leading us to exceed the planetary boundaries and thus threatening the future and well-being of mankind.

Table of Contents


Sustainability in dealing with chemicals

Chemistry is key for sustainable transformation, for two important reasons: its role as a cause of problems such as environmental pollution or damage to health must be massively and globally pushed back. At the same time, chemistry is indispensable for human well-being because it provides diverse solutions for a wide range of areas such as health, nutrition, climate protection and mobility, for example with medicine and functional materials and products such as plastics or electronics. The strategic goals of the necessary transformation for sustainable development with and in chemistry are comprehensive. They require great innovative strength, on the one hand for technical solutions, and on the other hand for management measures, interaction and political framework conditions.

Sustainability in chemistry relates of a multitude of aspects and addresses several impact levels. The German Environment Agency places precautionary environmental and health protection at the center of its considerations and activities. The problems, challenges and options are clearly described (see here) and require concerted, effective action, with more sustainable approaches than hitherto.
Sustainability addresses the entire life cycle of chemicals, thus their starting materials, manufacturing of products and their application resp. use, all action for circularity as well as end-of-life. Thereby, it addresses all related processes, including energy demand, emissions and immissions, among others.
The solution approaches for a sustainable transformation of sectors, value chains and circular systems must take a systemic overall view, take place within the planetary boundaries (see Fig. 1) and serve the SDGs. Only an approach that sets priorities in terms of sustainable development can lead out of the existing imbalance between the economic, social and environmental spheres:

  • The primary goal of economic activity and a prerequisite for successful business models must be to enable human well-being and to fulfil all elementary social needs - without harming society or the environment in the process.
  • Society, in turn, can only exist within the capacity limits of our planet and is therefore dependent on intact ecosystems and limited resource consumption.

This results in a hierarchy of the three dimensions of sustainability (see Fig. 2).

Sustainability in and with chemistry as broad-based topic needs networked acting of actors from science, industry, environmental and consumer protection associations, as well as public authorities and politics. The cross-section of sectors to be considered with reference to chemistry in turn consists of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry as well as related industries such as, construction, textiles, cosmetics, agriculture and nutrition, mobility, energy, electronics and IT, etc.
Recognising and dealing appropriately with possible conflicts of objectives requires systems thinking. The sectors dealing with chemical entities should frame this as a contribution to sustainable development and address the respective SDG principles.

The application of sustainable chemistry aims to develop particularly safe and innovation-oriented solutions with preferably non-hazardous chemicals. Through long-term strategic planning and implementation of sustainable chemistry, all stakeholders are able to advancing the goals of the Global Framework on Chemicals (GFC) and its target system, which was adopted at the 5th International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) in Bonn at the end of September 2023.


The ISC3

With establishment of the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3), the Ministry of the Environment and the German Environment Agency sent a key actor promoting sustainable solutions with and in chemistry to the international level. The ISC3 addresses major challenges faced by sectors designing, manufacturing and/or using chemicals and its products. To help finding proper solutions it networks globally the most progressive partners and strengthens new systems thinking in the sense of sustainability and circular economy. With this approach, significant contributions to achieving the United Nation’s (UN's) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are possible.
The ISC3 is a globally operating institution and multi-stakeholder platform. It drives five main activity fields: cooperation, innovation, education, research and information. The ISC3 initiated key formats for stakeholder participation with the Advisory Board, Scientific Board and Stakeholder Forum, launched the world's first master's degree program in “Sustainable Chemistry” at Leuphana University Lüneburg, and established its Global Start-up Service, which was joined by more than 190 start-ups from around the world by December 2022.

The Logo of the ISC3
ISC3 Logo
Source: ISC3


The urgently needed transformation of chemistry must take place across sectors and requires a framework for action. For this, the existing and future indicators, criteria and descriptions of the nexus of sustainability and chemistry must be ambitious and even better linked. In addition to the SDGs with their targets and indicators, there is a whole range of initiatives and activities that describe objectives, strategies and concepts in this topic area:

Presentation with 10 characteristics of modern sustainable chemistry
Ten Key Characteristics of Sustainable Chemistry
Source: Umweltbundesamt

Chemical Leasing

Chemical leasing stands for a service-oriented business model with the aim of no longer providing chemicals on a quantity-oriented basis, but for a service.

For example, the price for a solvent degreasing service is based on the area of the cleaned surface and no longer on the amount of solvent sold. The manufacturer of the chemical becomes a service provider in the new business model. Chemical leasing (main article) is an instrument to implement sustainable chemistry, as profit is not increased by the amount of chemicals sold, but by saving them. The aim is to minimise the use of chemicals in order to reduce costs and thus also the consumption of resources.

In this model, the manufacturer of the chemicals comes into contact with the processors and users in the value chain. He thus deals with the further life cycle of the chemicals, makes the know-how for the application of his chemical his own business and thus ideally also assumes responsibility for chemical safety.

So far, various application areas have been tested for the model, such as metalworking (application: cleaning/degreasing, pickling, casting, cooling/lubricating), in chemical synthesis (application: catalysis), in the food industry (application: extraction, water treatment) and in the provision of auxiliary materials (application: cooling of goods, technical gases). However, questions still need to be clarified, for example for which industries the model is practicable in Germany and which conditions must be fulfilled in order to protect trade and business secrets.


Activities of the German Environment Agency

Various tools already exist for concretizing a transformation to greater sustainability, e.g. the assessment schemes of the OECD's Substitution and Alternatives Assessment Toolbox (SAA Toolbox).
The German Environment Agency also supports sustainability in and with chemistry, with the following offers (among others):


Why is the German Environment Agency concerned with sustainability and chemistry?

The chemical sector is one of the most important and innovative industries in Europe. As a leading chemical location, Germany is in particular demand to develop and implement sustainable concepts. Chemical use and chemical production have been a major source of high pollution for the environment and human health. From a global perspective, this aspect is rather increasing. Economic success for companies in the chemical industry, with its above-average innovative strength, is only then future-oriented in the sense of sustainable development, if they use innovative products and technologies that are also safe and resource-saving.
The aim of the German Environment Agency is to help prevent negative effects of the chemical industry and the processing and use of chemicals on people and the environment. If products and processes consume fewer resources, this relieves the environment and, at the same time, results in cost savings for companies.
In the view of the German Environment Agency, sustainability and applied chemistry must be inextricably linked as a basic prerequisite for an innovation policy that simultaneously protects the environment and health. The German Environment Agency wants to be a forum and partner for actors who want to exchange ideas and approaches for linking sustainability and chemistry, find a common understanding of the central objectives and develop approaches for joint effective action.

Printer-friendly version
 sustainable chemistry