Sustainable chemistry

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Chemicals play an important role in almost every sphere of daily life and make a significant contribution to our prosperity and standard of living. We can no longer imagine our daily lives without chemicals and, in many cases, they have become indispensable. Chemicals can be found in all consumables, such as cosmetics, wall paint, textiles, drugs and electrical appliances. However, being exposed to hazardous chemicals can be very harmful to human health, the environment and ecosystems.

At the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, it was agreed that chemicals should be used and produced in ways that lead to the minimisation of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment (WSSD 2020 Goal). According to the Global Chemicals Outlook II, recently published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), this goal was clearly missed despite all the efforts of the international community. All activities aimed at setting up an effective global management of chemicals and waste must be significantly increased.

In light of the rapidly growing global production of chemicals โ€“ between 2017 and 2030 alone it is expected that sales of chemicals will double to 6.6 trillion US dollars โ€“ a strategy only focussing on Germany or Europe is too short-sighted. Additional activities are required to promote sustainable production and use of chemicals. The goal is to achieve sustainable production and use of chemicals around the world.

Sustainable chemistry covers the entire life cycle of chemicals, from raw material extraction and production of basic chemicals, speciality chemicals and products to their use and disposal.

This is all the more important when the focus is not only on the achievement of specific chemicals safety goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but also on the 2030 goals that hinge on the safe and sustainable use of chemicals although it is not explicitly mentioned, such as poverty reduction, economic development, resource efficiency and climate action. For this purpose, it is necessary to take a holistic approach which integrates ecological, economic and social aspects in the life cycle of chemicals in decision-making about the production or use of chemicals.

Putting this approach into practice requires suitable framework conditions. For this, the right foundations must be laid in education at all levels, from primary and secondary education to vocational training, university education and informal education on sustainable development. Moreover, suitable incentives are required to strengthen the development of sustainable innovations, manufacturing processes and business models. Finally, appropriate platforms are needed to facilitate networking and regular exchange of information among interested stakeholders. Against this background, the BMU and the Federal Environment Agency jointly established the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) in 2017, located in Bonn.

The ISC3 aims to consolidate and provide access to international knowledge on and excellence in sustainable chemistry, give impetus to research, facilitate networking between different stakeholder groups, further develop the sustainable chemistry approach and promote practical implementation.

The BMU is also committed to integrating the comprehensive approach of sustainable chemistry in the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Elements of sustainable chemistry complement the measures taken under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and the Stockholm, Rotterdam and Minamata Conventions, to protect human health and the environment from the harmful effects of chemicals along their entire life cycle and exploit their potential in a sustainable manner.

Last updated: 25.05.2021

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