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‘Find Ways To Implement Innovations’

In an interview, Richard Northcote speaks about company’s innovations as well as other sustainability initiatives

Photo Credit : Tarun Gupta


Richard Northcote, Chief Sustainability Officer, Covestro

In December 2016, at the Nova-Institute’s ‘Carbon Dioxide as Feedstock for Fuels, Chemistry and Polymers’ Conference, German manufacturer of high polymer materials Covestro announced that they had developed a new renewable process to produce high-quality plastics. This innovation will allow the company to reduce its petroleum consumption while expanding its raw material basis. How does this innovation work? Well, the new polyol contains about 20 per cent CO2. In other words, it replaces this portion of the conventional, petroleum-based raw material. Richard Northcote, Covestro’s Chief Sustainability Officer, was in India in April to set up science centres in the NCR region, among other things.

Anurit Kanti spoke to Northcote on the company’s innovations as well as other sustainability initiatives.

Edited excerpts:

How is Covestro innovating to establish carbon dioxide as an alternative raw material in the chemicals and plastics industry?
We have just begun having found the catalyst that allows us now to substitute 20 per cent of the oil in the polyol, which goes into furniture foam. That is just the start of what we can do. So, if you think about how much CO2 it will actually use, it’s minimal, but the important thing is the breakthrough in chemistry. For the first time, we can take carbon from CO2, instead of carbon from oil, and that is exciting.

So, we now have a number of R&D projects going on, about where else can we utilise CO2. We can use it in other types of polyurethanes, for example, or in polycarbonates, whether we can create other materials out of it. And it is not just CO2, it is methane as well, as this is a breakthrough in C1 chemistry, which until now everyone thought of as a greenhouse gas. But we don’t look at it as green house gas anymore, we look at it as a feedstock.

How will technology be an alternative source of raw materials, and how will technology be a solution to some of the biggest challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels?
Let me give you an example. When I talk to politicians and show them new technology or new breakthroughs we might have had, be it CO2 foam, or a new polycarbonate composite we have created, they immediately get very excited, they say, ‘This is great, we need more innovation like this.’ And I say, ‘No, you need to find a way of implementing this innovation’.

So, the technology exists, but we have just got to find a way of implementing it. If you look at the more traditional industries: the automotive industry, the construction industry, we are still using technology used at the time of the Industrial Revolution. We are using steel, aluminium, glass, really heavy materials that are highly energy intensive to make and to recycle. We have alternatives available now that are much lighter, much better composites, but where is the legislation that is bringing that in? We don’t see that coming from the government, we don’t see enough push coming from NGOs and the drive to change some of these older industries.

Where do you see Covestro in the next five years in the realm of sustainability?
Five years ago, when I was asked to take this role in sustainability, the first thing we did was using the triple bottom line as one of our guiding principles.

The People, Planet and Profit motto...?
Yes, and when we implemented the triple bottom line in Covestro (Bayer Material Science, at that time) and what we said was, whatever we do in terms of R&D, must be positive in two of the Ps, and cannot be negative in the third P. So if you have something that is good for the environment and good for profit, but is negative for society, then don’t do it. And that’s a difficult thing to sell in a big corporation.

Actually when we looked back over 10 years, at all the innovations and by implementing them, we became known with customers, suppliers and even in government circles as a leader in sustainability within our industry. The CO2 was a breakthrough, and there are some other announcements that are coming out soon, where we are looking at bio-based alternatives. So, we are seen as a leader, we are a lead member of the UN Global Compact. We have recently formed a partnership with UN Environment, where we are looking at working with great young inventors of tomorrow.

For us, what is really important are the 17 SDGs (sustainable development goals), which have become our roadmap for growth.

What are Covestro’s other initiatives in reducing environmental impact?

If you look at the five targets we have set for 2025, the first one is reducing our CO2 emissions by 50 per cent. We have aligned all our R&D with the SDGs. We are going to demand of all our suppliers that they comply with our sustainability agenda, and that really moves the industry in the right way.

Then, we have what we call inclusive business, because we believe that the technology we are capable of developing could have a much bigger impact if we could bring it down the social pyramid. Imagine the poor farmers here in India and elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, if they have access to some of the technology we enjoy, can this improve their economic position, and can they double or triple the revenue that get on return for their investment on agriculture.

So we have another target, where we aim to reach 10 million people with our technology to benefit their lives by 2025. And India is one of the major markets where we believe we can have a big impact.

And the final target is that in society today, there is a lot of vocabulary out in the wider public — circular economy, carbon economy, decarbonisation — what does it all mean? What we want to do is we want to develop a methodology with partners, to come up with a metric, to show society and government, where is a good place to invest carbon. So, if you have limited fossil-based carbon, there is an argument that you leave it in the ground. The worst thing you can do is burn it because then what we are doing is taking carbon and turning it into CO2. So, we believe that if you can take carbon, you can create something valuable out of it for example, a polyurethane foam, which goes into insulator fridge, then, over the life of that product, you will save 70 times more carbon than you have actually invested. If you put it into a polycarbonate, which goes into an LED, you save 50 times as much carbon. So, by using carbon sensibly, and investing it, you get a return on that, because of lower emissions, that is a good use of carbon.

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magazine 13 May 2017 carbon dioxide sustainability