A Crucial Juncture

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals

A Crucial Juncture


examines the potential for cleaner production
in India's chemical industry


Four million chemicals are known - and 60,000 to 70,000 are handled intensively by industry. The chemical industry supplies a whole gamut of products. Its vast canvas encompasses all major segments of human life; from paints to plastics and from medicine to clothes. It has made a significant contribution to the scientific and technological advances of this century and almost all industries use its products in some form or another.

In India, the chemical industry has grown significantly from the mid-1950s onwards. Its share of gross national industrial output is estimated to have risen from 8 per cent in 1971 to about 12 per cent today. The vast variety of chemicals now manufactured in the country ranges from high-volume basic inorganic materials like acids, alkalis and polymers to low-volume fine chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and pesticides. India is now self-sufficient in almost all major heavy chemicals which form the building blocks for downstream products like drugs, dye stuffs, pesticides, plastics, paints and pharmaceuticals.

India's chemical industry is also a major foreign exchange earner. The value of exports in the year 1993-1994 is estimated to be around $1.94 billion: 35 per cent of this is made up of pharmaceuticals, followed by dyes and intermediates at 23 per cent.

It is also probably the country's most diversified industrial sector. It ranges from modern computer process controlled, fully automatic industry to outdated and obsolete technologies, from large mega-size internationally comparable plants to tiny small-scale ones. There has been a simultaneous growth of large plants for bulk chemicals with small-scale industries for others. On the one hand this has allowed the establishment and proliferation of chemical industries in different regions, but on the other it has perpetuated inefficient manufacturing techniques. As a result, large quantities of wastes and pollutants have been generated.

The pollutants are mostly toxic and hazardous and the treatment of wastes by conventional techniques is difficult and expensive. For example, the effluent treatment plant for an 18-tonne capacity Vinyl Sulphone plant is estimated to cost around $120,000 with an annual operating cost of around $86,000.

Thus, while the chemical industry's growth and development is economically crucial, its environmental hazards pose a serious problem.

Several strategies for environmental management have been proposed, and sometimes even thrust upon the chemical industries. The establishment of common effluent treatment plants was once reckoned to be a panacea for the environmental problems of small industries. But the anticipated results were not obtained because of stringent requirements for pretreatment, the non-compatibility of wastes from different industries, and lack of clarity in management and operational responsibilities, among other reasons. Individual effluent treatment plants, however, are very expensive, and small-scale industries do not have the technical capability to run them. Re-locating and re-siting critically polluting industries would at best provide short-term relief and, in fact, extend the pollution problem to other regions in the long run. On the whole, none of these strategies has been able to provide a comprehensive and sustainable solution.

Cleaner production is now well-recognized as an eco-friendly (friendly in both economic and environmental terms) tool to combat industrial environmental problems. Its techniques and technologies have been applied and demonstrated with great success in a wide variety of industrial sectors. Demonstration projects - such as Project DESIRE (Demonstration in Small Industries for Reducing Waste) in India, Project PRISMA in The Netherlands, and the AIRE-CALDER Project in the United Kingdom - bear testimony to its applicability and potential. It needs to be applied at all three stages - manufacturing, usage and disposal - of the chemical industry. A number of strategies could be implemented.

Substitution. The use of some of the input materials in chemical industries - such as raw materials, solvents and catalysts - started in the days before serious environmental problems surfaced. Now a number of materials are available, and being developed, to make the product in a more environmentally friendly way. The use of a solvent-based process for the sulphonation step in the manufacture of Vinyl Sulphone, for example, completely eliminates the generation of mother liquor, totally removing the pollution problem arising from it.

Source reduction. Good house-keeping practices, improving the design of equipment, and better process control contribute greatly to reducing the generation of pollutants at source. This includes both simple measures - such as reducing leakage and spillage, insulating hot and cold surfaces, and adhering to optimum process conditions - and technically involved measures like re-designing equipment and using better construction materials. Using vacuum filters instead of conventional nutch filters reduces the pollution generated during the purification of Vinyl Sulphone. Similarly, using improved designs of distillation columns in the alcohol industry enables aldehydes, ketones and fusel oil to be recovered separately - thus reducing pollution. Better designs of reactors in alkyd resin manufacture in the paints industry reduces losses of by-products.

Recycling/re-use. Prudent plant design could enable the segregation and recycling of various effluent streams from the chemical industry, thus reducing the total volume of effluent and/or the total pollution load. Developing more efficient re-use techniques - like reverse osmosis, nanofiltration, electrodialysis, and high-efficiency absorbers - has led to a distinct improvement in the cost efficiency of recovery. The chemical industry also provides a classic example of how waste from one industry could easily become the raw material for another. The iron sludge generated in the paracetamol industry, for example, could be an excellent raw material for the pigment industry.

Applying cleaner technologies. The development of more and more efficient unit processes and operations - extending up to the application of biotechnology - is revolutionizing the industry. Biochemical technologies are expected to change the entire environmental scenario of the chemical industry, as their products would be almost free of toxic or hazardous wastes. Bacterial desulphurization of coal and fuel gases is just one example of the immense potential. Technological innovations also include forward and backward integration so that waste products and by-products are used within the industry itself.

Developing better products. Innovations in product usage principally revolve around developing ones which are more environmentally friendly during use and disposal as well as in production. Classic examples are the development of non-ozone depleting refrigerants and aerosols.

Nevertheless, the concept of cleaner production has not picked up in the chemical industries, despite its proven economic and environmental benefits. The reasons are not hard to find. Apart from generic cross-sectoral barriers to acceptance - like attitudinal and financial constraints, and the lack of technical skills - there are a few that are typical to chemical industries:

- Continued emphasis on end-of-pipe treatment - instead of building an environment that can provide the impetus for cleaner production - has been a major factor. Even recent judicial decisions have favoured the installation of end-of-pipe treatment plants. In many cases, this treatment is both expensive and complicated. A typical example was a directive issued to the industry to evaporate entire effluents to separate the dissolved solids. Such counter-productive decisions dissuade industries from taking pro-active steps towards protection of the environment;

- Chemical industries, particularly small-scale ones, are forced to adopt old, inefficient technologies due to the sluggish transfer of new, more efficient and environmentally friendly ones. Even when they are willing to pay for them, the absence of a commercially viable system for transferring technology precludes them from modernizing. To take Vinyl Sulphone again: the latest technology - carrying out the sulphonation in a recoverable solvent media instead of in water - is well known, but the inability of local research institutions to develop it, and the unwillingness of developed countries to transfer the know-how, force the industry to continue with the old technology and, thus, cause environmental damage;

- Lack of infrastructure - including institutions capable of assisting and guiding industries in implementing cleaner production - is another major constraint. The chemical industry is highly specialized and requires a set of professional specialists to identify and implement opportunities for cleaner production. In India, to the best of our knowledge, the National Cleaner Production Centre and its host institution, the National Productivity Council, are the only agencies working in this field. This is less than a drop in the ocean in such a gigantic country with so many industries;

- The absence of a fiscal regime which could favour the protection, growth and development of environmentally sound technologies is yet another barrier. Currently available incentives - such as accelerated depreciation and tax rebates - are only given for implementing end-of-pipe pollution control systems;

- Finally there is little or no effort in educating consumers to dissuade them from manufacturing and using environmentally harmful chemicals. The market continues to be governed by cost and quality considerations. Even major institutional buyers, including the Government, do not have environmental friendliness among their purchase criteria.

However, a gloomy picture may not be justified. A few initiatives provide a feeling of comfort. They include:

- The establishment of the National Cleaner Production Centre and thinking in Government about backing it up with Regional Cleaner Production Centres;

- The mounting of demonstration projects, supported nationally and internationally, which provide a convincing answer to industrialists apprehensive about the potential and benefits of cleaner production. The demonstration in Vinyl Sulphone industries - supported by the Asian Productivity Organization, Tokyo - opened the eyes of 70 other industries, which are now keen to implement cleaner production measures;

- The establishment of Waste Minimization Circles - a project promoted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and supported by the World Bank - has provided a forum for industries to exchange views and educate each other on the possibilities of waste minimization;

- The gradual revision of effluent standards, towards being based on loads rather than concentrations of pollutants, provides an impetus to cleaner production.

Cleaner production is going to be the key to future profits. A beginning has been made, and industries are realizing the importance and benefits of the concept. It is now up to the national Government and international agencies to provide the momentum for its faster and more wide-spread adoption. While regulatory measures remain essential for the effectiveness of the policy, new approaches will have to be introduced for considering market choices. Market-orientated price mechanisms will influence behaviour to avoid the excessive use of natural resources. Economic instruments need to be formulated which encourage a shift from corrective and preventive measures, internalize the costs of production and conserve resources. The precise choice will depend on several factors such as the ease with which emissions can be measured, prospective changes in technology and market structures, and political and social acceptability. A mixture of regulatory and economic measures needs to be adopted.

The industry now stands at a crucial juncture, as does the entire cycle of development. Adequate support, persuasion and even enforcement would make all the difference between a desirable chemical industry and an undesirable one.

Surya Prakash Chandak is Director of the National Cleaner Production Centre, India.

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