Sustainable Chemistry

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Chemicals influence our life.
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Table of Contents


What is sustainable chemistry?

Sustainable Chemistry is a holistic framework addressing the whole life-cycle of chemicals and cross-cutting areas and sectors. It is based on sound management of chemicals and waste, uses the principles of green chemistry and the precautionary principle. Sustainable Chemistry is a concept in that economy operates within the ecologically planetary limits and that seeks safe and environmentally benign solutions. Sustainable Chemistry is a transformative approach contributing with innovative solutions to resource efficiency, circular economy as well as carbon-neutrality.

Sustainable chemistry is a broad-ranging area that concerns stakeholders in the scientific community, the economy, public authorities, and environmental and consumer advocate associations.

There are various different approaches to the implementation of sustainable chemistry. At a workshop on sustainable chemistry held in 2004, jointly with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the German Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) has developed criteria for a sustainable chemistry:

  • Qualitative development: Use of harmless substances, or where this is impossible, substances involving a low risk for humans and the environment, and manufacturing of long-life products in a resource-saving manner;
  • Quantitative development: Reduction of the consumption of natural resources, which should be renewable wherever possible, avoidance or minimization of emission or introduction of chemicals or pollutants into the environment. Such measures will help to save costs;
  • Comprehensive life cycle assessment: Analysis of raw material production, manufacture, processing, use and disposal of chemicals and discarded products in order to reduce the consumption of resources and energy and to avoid the use of dangerous substances;
  • Action instead of reaction: Avoidance, already at the stage of development and prior to marketing, of chemicals that endanger the environment and human health during their life cycle and make excessive use of the environment as a source or sink; reduction of damage costs and the associated economic risks for enterprises and remediation costs to be covered by the state;
  • Economic innovation: Sustainable chemicals, products and production methods produce confidence in industrial users, private consumers and customers from the public sector and thus, result in competitive advantages.

Avoiding hazardous chemicals – developing safe chemicals

One step towards creating more safety lies in chemicals with less hazardous properties that can be handled at lower risk. Chemicals no longer pose a risk once there is compliance with principles of safe handling.

The use of very hazardous substances must have limited application or must be banned entirely. These substances include carcinogenic, mutagenic or substances toxic to reproduction (CMR substances), or substances that are highly critical for the environment because they are persistent and bioaccumulative (PBT substances).

Concerning environmental protection policy sustainable chemicals may not cause any short or long-term problems upon release into the environment. Additionally, sustainable chemicals are not persistent, do not spread across large areas (short range chemicals) and have no irreversible effects.

Chemicals are considered sustainable when no hazardous properties are detected: they neither cause known damages nor persist in the environment long enough such that they might have a negative impact heretofore unknown.

A sustainable chemical is not characterised by the properties of its contents only. The conditions under which substances are produced, processed and applied must be evaluated throughout their entire life, which includes their specific demand for resources (in terms of energy, raw materials and additives), their yield upon production, emissions to the air, water and soil, and volumes of wastewater and solid waste.

Why is the German Federal Environment Agency concerned with sustainable chemistry?

It is the Federal Environment Agency’s objective to help prevent any negative impact on mankind and the environment issuing from the chemicals industry or the downstream processing and application of chemicals. When products and processes consume fewer resources there is less strain on the environment as well as cost savings for businesses.

The Federal Environment Agency sees sustainable chemistry as an important element of environmentally friendly innovation policy that protects the environment and health at the same time. The Federal Environment Agency acts as a forum for stakeholders in which there can be an exchange of ideas and approaches to sustainable chemistry, development of design options, and an opportunity to come to agreement on common goals.


Examples of sustainable chemistry

Chemical Leasing is a service-oriented business model that shifts the focus from increasing sales volume of chemicals towards a value-added approach.

As an example: the price for the service of solvent degreasing is based on the surface to be cleaned instead of the volume of solvent sold. In the new business model, the supplier of the chemical becomes a service provider. Chemical Leasing is an instrument with which to implement sustainable management of chemicals since profit is not increased through volume of chemicals sold, but by saving costs on their purchase. The goal is to minimise use of chemicals, thereby reducing costs and consumption of resources.

According to this model the producer of chemicals is in contact with its consumers throughout the supply chain. Thus, accompanying the chemicals throughout their life cycle and making the know-how on application of a chemicals part of the contractors business and ideally, assuming responsibility for chemical safety.

Various types of utilisation in the following industries have been tested according to this model: metalworking (application: cleaning/degreasing, staining, casting, cooling/lubricating); chemical synthesis (application: catalyst use); food industry (application: extraction, water treatment); production of additives (application: cooling goods, technical gases).

However, there remain unanswered questions, namely for which industries the model is practicable in Germany and what conditions must be met to safeguard business and trade secrets.

In this regard a Federal Environment Agency research project on Chemical Leasing in Germany is in progress. The project objective is to develop quality criteria for chemical leasing with an emphasis on protecting the environment and health. In the course of the project concrete and practicable criteria are to be developed and proposals put forward as to how they might be applied and integrated into chemical leasing business models. Results will be presented to the international Working Group on Chemical Leasing and brought to bear in the international debate.

Another example of an innovative approach to sustainable chemical production is white biotechnology. White biotechnology uses biological processes in bioreactors to produce bacteria, yeasts, moulds or the enzymes in them to produce or process chemicals. Renewable materials or recycling material is often used as a culture medium, for example molasses and whey. New biotechnology processes seek to make use of residual and waste matter and to develop chemical primary products and products while also reducing the risk of accidents.

Such examples as the production of Vitamin B12 are particularly impressive as it can be produced with biotechnology in one individual operation as opposed to classical chemical synthesis, which requires many complicated steps. White biotechnology does more than replace existing procedures as it makes it possible to produce new and economically profitable substances. The chemicals that are used and produced are usually friendlier to the environment and health than those produced in the classic synthetic processes. Although a breakthrough has not yet been achieved, forecasts have predicted that roughly 20% of chemicals will be produced by means of biotechnology in the next decade. 


Legal framework for sustainable chemistry

One important element in moving towards sustainable chemistry is the new European Chemicals Regulation REACH in German. REACH will help to make chemicals and their applications safer and move the entire chemicals industry towards sustainable management because

  • information on the hazardous properties and safe use of substances in the supply chain is communicated,
  • the most hazardous substances will become subject to authorisation and thereby controlled,
  • chemicals will only be produced and used if their application is safe.

REACH creates the requirement that the risks of chemicals shall be identified and made known. Its emphasis is on information about chemicals. These requirements apply in particular to annual production volumes of 10 tonnes and more per producer and importer. The Federal Environment Agency believes that the requirements governing production volumes are still too lax to ensure that the industry overall operates sustainably, and further steps are therefore necessary.

Efficient and innovative solutions can only be applied once the life cycle of chemicals is subjected to systematic investigation. Sustainable chemistry demands that there be a greater exchange of information among the stakeholders in the supply chain. REACH encourages this exchange in the chain and, as such, is a step towards sustainability. Furthermore, REACH will subject very hazardous substances such as CMR- or PBT-substances to authorisation.

The European Parliament adopted the new EU Plant Protection Products Regulation on 14 January 2009, and it seizes upon this point and extends the principle of substitution to several other risks (e.g. endocrine effects). The new EC Directive for sustainable use of pesticides is an example of how the use of toxic chemicals can be managed safely and reduced overall.

Sustainable chemicals management will make businesses internationally competitive and able to open up new markets. Recognised environmental management systems such as the international ISO 14001 standard and the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS II) will serve to promote sustainability as, for example, EMAS-validated product descriptions (”validated information”) will provide incentive to develop sustainable products.


Sustainability in global chemicals management

A large number of environmental problems can no longer be solved at the national or European level alone and require global solutions instead. The global economy is and increasingly will be oriented towards free trade around the globe.

Therefore, global initiatives for sustainable chemicals production and chemical safety are also necessary. Internationally binding legal treaties seek to create a framework within which uniform and universally valid standards can be developed. The European Union has a great stake in integrating European technical standards already developed into these agreements, for example the information on Best Available Techniques or on risk management of hazardous chemicals. Global conferences have produced a series of international initiatives and treaties on chemical safety, including:

The current peak in developments aims to foster a strategic approach to international chemical management (Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management - SAICM) which bundles the efforts of many individual initiatives in the area of chemicals management. Although the instrument itself is not legally binding, it is a clear sign that the community of states is working to find a way to implement the approach at a global level.

In future it will become more and more important to link the various global initiatives on chemicals management, especially the international treaties on chemicals management. A key platform for this is also provided by the OECD and its Programme for Environment, Health and Safety - EHS. The Member countries cooperate through this programme and validate internationally recognised guidelines for testing chemicals. The Federal Environment Agency is the responsible organ in Germany and is developing a platform for the exchange of information.


Activities of the German Environment Agency

The “Guide on Sustainable Chemicals” of the German Environmental Agency helps you as a manufacturer, formulators or end users of substances to put a greater emphasis on sustainability aspects: in the selection of substances and use of chemicals in the company. The selection of sustainable chemicals has beneficial effects for occupational safety, consumer and environmental protection. In the medium run, sustainability leads to more innovative uses of chemicals, and is therefore also economically attractive. More sustainable products mean: fewer pollutants, greater acceptance, less adverse impacts on the environment and to society, with simultaneous success in the market. With the Access-based file SubSelect, an electronic version of the guide is now available in addition to the guide.

The German Environment Agency published a background paper on sustainable chemistry in March 2009 which describes the meaning of sustainability in the context of chemicals and why such a concept can add up to economic success for the chemicals industry, more safety for the environment and health from harmful chemicals, and lower consumption of natural resources. The paper presents various positions on sustainable chemistry as well as criteria of a chemical management system that is both environmentally and economically compatible. The background paper serves mainly as a means of communication between stakeholders in the private sector, science, at environmental associations, and in public administration.

The German Environment Agency hosted the Sustainable Chemistry – Implementation of a Scientific Concept in Policy and Economy workshop during Germany’s EU presidency in 2007. The event provided an international forum at which to design sustainable chemistry policy. Its objective was to focus on the significance of sustainable chemicals policy as a vital element in the design of sustainable development in general and to flesh out tools with which to implement it. 



  • Anastas, P. T.; Warner, J. C. Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice , Oxford University Press: New York, 1998, p.30. Oxford University Press from ACS Green Chemistry Institute Webpage
  • Richtlinie 96/61/EG des Rates vom 24. September 1996 über die integrierte Vermeidung und Verminderung der Umweltverschmutzung; ABl. L 257 vom 10.10.1996, S. 26
  • Steinhäuser, K.; Richter. S.: „Nachhaltige Chemie – Perspektiven für Wertschöpfungsketten und Rahmenbedingungen für die Umsetzung” in Nachhaltige Chemie – Erfahrungen und Perspektiven, Metropolis-Verlag, Herausgegebene von Angrick, M; Kümmerer, K.; Meinzer, L.; Marburg 2006
  • Best Available Techniques = BAT (entspricht den besten verfügbaren Techniken nach EU-Verständnis; EU-BVT beinhaltet jedoch BEP implizit); Best Environmental Practices = BEP
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