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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Royal Society of Chemistry Task Force Aims to Make Liquid Polymers ‘Benign by Design’

The Sustainable Polymers in Liquid Formulation (PLFs) Task Force will collaborate to innovate throughout the value chain and across sectors including cosmetics, water treatments, lubricants and agricultural products.

Four more companies have joined an industry task force that the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has convened to improve the sustainability of a ubiquitous, $125 billion class of ‘forgotten’ polymers.

The Sustainable Polymers in Liquid Formulation (PLFs) Task Force seeks to provide leadership in creating a collaborative strategy to drive innovation throughout the value chain and across diverse sectors including cosmetics, water treatments, lubricants and agricultural products.

Dow, British utility providers Northumbrian Water and United Utilities, and global pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance have just joined existing members Afton Chemical, BASF, Croda, Crown Paints, Scott Bader and Unilever.

WTF are PLFs?

As a group of thousands of different chemicals, PLFs are typically used as thickeners, emulsifiers and binders — and are key to the functionality of everything from inks, paints, coatings and industrial lubricants; to adhesives and sealants, pesticides and herbicides, household cleaners and personal care products. RSC established the task force earlier this year after its research showed that an estimated 36 million tonnes of PLFs — enough to fill Wembley Stadium 32 times over — are made and sold each year.

However, due to their huge variety of uses, PLFs are an often ‘forgotten’ group of polymers with common challenges and solutions — which the RSC report highlighted as particularly important when it comes to matters such as collecting waste streams, recycling them or making them more sustainably (they are currently made mostly from fossil fuels).

“Our report last year identified common sustainability challenges facing polymer ingredients used in most households and workplaces — and said that we must address this without delay,” said RSC President Tom Welton. “Identifying how we can start to provide solutions and giving these chemicals a collective name, Polymers in Liquid Formulations, has allowed us to engage with some of the biggest companies in the world to spearhead action through our task force.

“The seriousness and enthusiasm with which the chemical industry has approached this from several sectors and parts of the supply chain drives home the colossal impact that can be achieved through ambition and collaboration. I welcome our new members, who bring a wide range of perspectives from the whole value chain — which will be key to delivering a joined-up strategy.”

The RSC has outlined five key steps to making PLFs ‘benign by design’:

  • De-fossilizing PLFs feedstocks, the building blocks of polymers.

  • Optimizing the functionality of sustainable polymers to equal or outperform conventional options.

  • Developing sustainable formulation processes for manufacturing PLFs.

  • Understanding the diverse fate of the hundreds of types of polymers when they reach the environment (the group is investigating solutions in development for removing PFAS from wastewater, which could also recover PLFs for recycling or reuse).

  • Maximizing the futures of sustainable PLFs by developing governance frameworks, infrastructure and monitoring mechanisms to support industry-wide transition.

Professor Roy Sandbach OBE FRSC, independent Chair of the Sustainable PLFs Task Force, said: “Polymers are important building blocks for a myriad of everyday products; but unlike plastics, they’re hidden from ‘sustainability view,’ We need to change this — we need a concerted multi-sector and supply chain effort to look for technical innovation that reduces polymer impact and we need to drive a clear strategy to action.”

Starting with paint

Last year’s RSC report, Polymers in liquid formulations (PLFs): Opportunities for a sustainable future, examined the sustainability of these chemicals and found that leadership and investment in innovation, waste management and circular models are urgently needed to make this overlooked group of chemicals more sustainable.

The organization then launched a follow-up campaign to highlight how progress can be made by establishing circular economies in the paint industry — for which over 31 million metric tons of PLFs are sold each year — after research from the British Coatings Federation revealed that 98 percent of waste paint in the UK was either incinerated or sent to landfill. RSC research revealed that every liter of household paint contains about 500ml of PLFs, and that UK households were stockpiling more than 50 million liters of paint — with 67 percent of adults admitting they didn’t know if their local recycling facility accepts waste paint. This has led to several parliamentary questions being raised across the UK — and is just the beginning in this multistakeholder, multi-industry effort.

“Making a shift towards the circular economy and more sustainable polymers in liquid formulations will require close collaboration across the chemical, formulated goods and waste industries,” said Dr Jason Harcup, Global VP of Research and Development at Unilever. “By bringing together actors from across this value chain, the RSC task force can help to support changes in the ways polymers are designed, produced and cycled at end of life — leading to products that are better for both consumers and for the planet.”