Which way next for chemical industry's Responsible Care?

Divided paths

14 January 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Responsible Care is heading off in a new direction by tackling sustainable development. But some in the industry, such as Cefic, would prefer a greater focus on process safety.

After a quarter of a century of relative success, during which it has helped numerous chemical sites and plant improve their environment, health and safety (EHS) performances, Responsible Care has begun to advance in a new and equally ambitious direction.

Instead of concentrating mainly on EHS matters, it is now embracing the much broader philosophy and objectives behind sustainable development. It will mean that Responsible Care will not just be about the environment and health but also social and economic issues.

But that could result in less uniformity of application over the next 25 years, as national associations seek to concentrate on different priorities within a much wider range of objectives.

The idea of merging the principles behind Responsible Care with those of sustainable development has been agreed by the Geneva-based International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), representing the global industry. This ought to prevent a worldwide schism opening up on the issue in the chemicals sector.

"There will not be a split in the ranks," predicts Brian Wastle, vice president for Responsible Care at the CCPA, which, in line with its role of 25 years ago, is currently drawing up new guidelines and performance metrics or indicators for the new scheme.

"There will be pace setters within the new Responsible Care," he adds. "There will be others who will trail behind and will want to concentrate on the core, original elements of Responsible Care based on the environment, health and safety."

In 2006 ICCA first endorsed the combination of Responsible Care with sustainable development when it put together a Responsible Care Global Charter as its contribution to the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) in Dubai on the implementation of the United Nations-led Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Among the nine key elements within the Global Charter, which has not only been backed by 53 Responsible Care member associations but also by 128 global chemical company chief executives, was a commitment to advance sustainable development.

"Responsible Care enables the global chemical industry to make a strong contribution to sustainable development," the Charter says. "Through improved performance, expanded economic opportunities and the development of innovative technologies and other solutions to societal problems, the industry will continue to taking practical steps to implement initiatives in support of sustainable development."

In addition to the CCPA, a number of other national associations are now starting to take steps to amalgamate Responsible Care with the social, economic as well as environmental aims of sustainable development. In Latin America these include the Brazilian Chemical Industry Association (Abiquim) and in Europe the Belgian Federation of Chemicals & Life Sciences (Essenscia).

"By broadening Responsible Care to cover the whole area of sustainable development we are building on its achievements in health, safety and the environment," explains Isabelle Chaput, Essenscia's secretary general. "This need to cover the social and economic impact of the chemical industry is something that is wanted by our stake holders, not just our members but trade unions and NGOs as well."

"Responsible Care has to move away from purely the local perspective, thinking just in the short term and as a management system for EHS. It has to introduce thinking in terms of life cycles and strategic change. The new Responsible Care is a necessity. We can't go on being too local."

Essenscia is aiming to publish in October the first of its annual sustainability reports which will reflect the new approach to Responsible Care. It will include aggregated data on performance indicators covering social and economic matters as well as the environment, health and safety.

Among the social aspects it is considering are corruption and compliance with competition rules and, in the economic area, indirect employment and involvement in green markets. They will be based on the UN's Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) which set standards for sustainability reporting.

"We'll be working with major stakeholders such as NGOs, maybe even journalists, certainly trade unions, to make sure we report on data they want to receive," says Chaput. "We've already reduced the number of GRI indicators from 100 to around 50. These will be cut to 20-25. We'll select indicators to which maybe we can commit ourselves to making significant improvements."

By the end of this year (2009), the CCPA expects to have gained agreement among its members for a set of guidelines and indicators which will be based on sustainability principles backed by the association in June of last year. These included objectives such as working for the improvement of people's lives as well as the environment, innovation for safer products and meeting expectations of social responsibility.

The association's companies will be under pressure to comply with the new aims in the same way they are expected to do with the existing Responsible Care programme.

"We've already agreed to have a monitoring team visit all of our member companies every three years to determine whether they are truly living up to this new set of principles," says Mr Wastle.

As a relatively small number of associations press ahead with the exercise of merging Responsible Care with sustainable development, a large proportion of Responsible Care members will be focusing on improving and extending the traditional EHS activities of the initiative.

"Although Responsible Care started to be implemented many years ago, there's still a long way to go to realise all of its objectives," says Bernard Thier, Responsible Care manager at the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic). "There're new priorities to focus on within the EHS area, such as process safety and product stewardship. There is a feeling that if the scope of Responsible Care is widened to cover all sorts of issues, it may lose its focus. We're looking for new indicators in process safety and for global-level principles for product stewardship. There is still a lot of work to be done on these issues."

After a number of plant accidents with high fatality and injury levels, particularly the blast four years ago at BP's Texas City refinery in Houston, which killed 15 and injured 170, process safety is seen by some associations as to be in urgent need of greater attention. The development of effective performance indicators for process safety is still considered to be at a relatively early stage.

Responsible Care is not yet a truly global code. Chemical sectors in most of Africa and the Middle East and large parts of Asia, including China, have not joined the programme. There are fears that if the EHS aspects lose their prominence, Responsible Care will have difficulty gaining new recruits.

On the other hand, one of the important original objectives of Responsible Care was winning back the trust of people after the disaster of Bhopal in late 1984. In much of the world the public still lacks confidence in the chemical industry. "We need to show people that with issues such as health and safety and climate change we are part of the solution and to demonstrate that we feel we have a responsibility to provide solutions," says Chaput.

Responsible Care hits a quarter century: Responsible Care will next year (2010) be celebrating the 25th anniversary of its launch in 1985 when the members of the Canadian Chemical Producers' Association (CCPA) signed a statement of principles behind the environmental, health and safety (EHS) initiative.

By the early 1990s around 20 national chemical industry associations in North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific had committed themselves to Responsible Care. It now has the backing of the industry in a total of 53 countries around the world, with the Russian Chemists Union (RCU) being the latest to join.

IT'S NOT EASY IMPLEMENTING GREEN

Doris de Guzman/New York

The EU is finding out that it is not as easy to implement any type of green-based regulations as what is happening with their Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and electronic recycling law.

The US Congress' "detective" agency, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study in December stating that the first phase (2005-2007) implementation of the EU's ETS currently has had a minimal impact in lessening its greenhouse gas emissions, as well as driving clean technology investments, partly blamed by the the short time frame for the ETS's implementation.

Meanwhile, the European Commission admitted last month that its electronics recyling law under the Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment directive, in force since 2004, has become costly and burdensome, and furthermore has failed to significantly reduce the dumping of electrical and electronic products in landfills, or the widespread, illegal trading of e-waste to non-EU countries.

The Commission believes that only one-third of such waste in the EU was appropriately treated. The Commission proposes revising the regulation and instead of the 4kg/person/year waste target, mandatory collection targets will be 65% of the average weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market, including medical devices.

Read the latest commentary on our green chemicals blog

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By: Sean Milmo
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