As Senior program manager Sustainable Chemical Business at MVO Nederland, Elsbeth Roelofs develops projects with Dutch chemical companies to make their value chains more sustainable. She is a promotor for the new economy. ‘When chemistry becomes more sustainable, all sectors become more sustainable.’
Elsbeth Roelofs studied chemical engineering to make industry cleaner. After positions as a consultant and strategic researcher, she wanted to operate closer to the industry. At MVO Nederland she focuses on accelerating the sustainable development of the chemical sector through national and international projects with SMEs and larger companies. She also lobbies for the new economy with the government. The pressure could be higher, as far as she is concerned, because a lot has to change in a short time. ‘Reactive companies only get moving when they have to, you need the government for that.’
You’ve been program manager of chemistry at MVO Netherlands since 2015. What exactly does MVO Netherlands do?
‘We bring companies together and let them strengthen each other, so that we work on innovation in the new economy together. MVO Netherlands is the largest sustainable business network in Europe. We have almost 2,000 companies from different sectors, including chemicals, but also, for example, agrifood, construction, healthcare and textiles. Our goal: by 2025, twenty percent of the economy has transitioned to the new economy , ergo climate neutral, circular, inclusive and with fair trade chains. To measure that, we developed the New Economy Index (NEx), which annually measures how sustainable the business community is.’
‘In addition, we set up innovation projects with our partners. Not as we know it in academia or at knowledge institutes like TNO. It is more applied, with a high TRL [Technology Readiness Level, ed]. What is already possible? We are going to apply that and stretch the boundaries further. Then we’ll see if we can scale up such a project.’
Can you give an example of such an innovation project?
‘We are now examining how to increase and stabilize the market for recycled plastic with Rijkswaterstaat and the Polymer Science Park in Zwolle. So far, that market is relatively small and it is highly dependent on the crude oil price. If it is high, then using recycled plastics is attractive because it is cheaper. When crude oil prices are low, the use of so-called virgin plastics is more advantageous. You can also reason that recyclate is another raw material. There has been a little more commitment from the market in recent years. More companies are buying recyclate and entering into contracts with recyclers or taking a stake in those parties. That has a stabilizing effect. But what is also stabilizing is simply showing that the application of recyclate is already possible in high percentages and that many more parties are asking for it.’
We started looking for interesting product groups for the application of recycled plastics. In paint buckets we had already seen an example in the market - a paint bucket made of 100% recyclate - so it was possible! Why didn’t everyone else do it? We asked paint manufacturers, bucket suppliers, DIY stores and recyclers to participate. Now we have set the ambition that by 2025 all paint buckets produced in the Netherlands will be 90-100% recyclate and the lids will be 80% recyclate.’
Are all producers of paint buckets in the Netherlands involved?
‘Yes, all Dutch producers and distributors of paint buckets, there are three in total: Dijkstra Plastics, Houweling Group and Hildering Plastics. The do-it-yourself trade associations, paint producers and the plastics industry are also involved. We have two large paint producers, AkzoNobel and PPG, and two smaller ones, Keim and Van Wijhe in the project. In addition, Renewi and Attero are involved as collectors and Veolia and De Pauw Sustainable Resources as recyclers.’
With this cluster, do you have all the relevant parties to deal with?
‘Yes, this leading group is big enough to have a real impact, we will just start seeing in the Gamma and Praxis that all those paint buckets are from recyclate. Another example from another sector is sustainable clothing for healthcare. With suppliers of industrial clothing and textile manufacturers and in cooperation with care institutions, clothing has been made that is more sustainable both in terms of raw materials and the production process, but is also equipped with sensors that correct the working posture and thus take care of the staff.’
‘Reactive companies only move when they have to, that’s where you need government’
It suggests that you are looking primarily at solutions that have already been applied, which you then want to broaden.
‘We are looking at a combination of solutions, but it still has an innovative character. We combine innovations and stretch the boundaries. We support the frontrunners and fast followers, but we also want to make sure it becomes mainstream. For this we also have our third activity; lobby to The Hague. We talk to ministers, ministers and officials, political parties. On the one hand this is practical: arranging visits for officials with companies in our network. They tell us what is already possible and what is preventing them from making their sustainable market even bigger.’
Is that ultimately where the solution lies? That the government makes demands, changes laws and imposes obligations?
’It is not the only solution, but it plays a very important role. Reactive companies only get moving when they have to; you need the government for that. But the government can also reward sustainable companies. What we are strongly working on is showing every time that the new economy pays, that you have innovation opportunities. That you can develop a more interesting market, or save costs. It’s as much about the opportunities as it is about a big stick.’
You are sector manager for chemistry - do you have any particular areas of focus within that?
’The chemical industry is large, capital-intensive and diverse, but very essential for society’s supply of raw materials and thus for a sustainable society. If chemistry becomes more sustainable, all sectors become more sustainable. Chemistry is fairly invisible, but all kinds of things are happening that contribute to sustainable development. We now have two focal points. First, circularity for products and services, with many projects around circular plastics. These have quite an impact in terms of CO2 emissions, because a lot of fossil raw materials for the chemical industry go towards the production of plastics. We have an interesting project portfolio there. The second focal point is called natural capital. That’s about the impact companies have on biodiversity, the ecosystem and natural resources they depend on. If you want to continue to operate in a sustainable environment, you have to take that into account.’
Should the government take a more active role?
‘If you want to give the leaders and the laggards a push, you have to make chain transparency mandatory. In the Netherlands there was a debate whether we should lead the way when it comes to International CSR legislation or follow the pace of European legislation. Then we brought frontrunners into talks with the previous Minister of Foreign Affairs to show them what they are up against if that legislation does not come in and what it will help if it does. You never know exactly how that contributes to decisions, but not long after that conversation, the minister announced that the Netherlands was going to make that the OECD guidelines mandatory. We thought that was quite a success ourselves.’
But something like those transparent chains, how does that go down within chemistry?
‘There is a dichotomy between large and small companies. The sustainable front-runners in SMEs actually want a lot more transparency about the origin and impact of their raw materials. But they run into the fact that large companies that are their suppliers don’t give the information, charge money for that information or provide incomplete data.’
Why would the big companies do that?
‘I think they find it complex and difficult. It takes quite a bit of effort and therefore money to get it to the surface. Sometimes it just isn’t a priority. There are no sanctions, and if an SME customer walks away they are not worried about it. There are some large chemical companies working on a sustainable portfolio of products, but that’s another story.’
‘I have become more aware of how strongly the existing economy lobbies’
Paint buckets made of recyclate and more attention to transparent chains all sound very sympathetic, but are we there if we want a sustainable economy?
’No, that won’t get us there. An awful lot has to be done on the raw materials side. You want to move towards a chemistry with circular, bio-based raw materials. You actually want to prevent CO2 emissions, or capture them and preferably use them again as raw materials. In the VNCI’s Roadmap 2050 of chemistry, they still expect a trickle of fossil raw materials in 2050. That may also be driven by the large petrochemical constituency. It doesn’t seem to me to be something to steer for 2050. Within chemistry, 85% is still fossil-based and far too little circular or bio-based. So an awful lot has to be done.’
It may also be difficult for people who are used to thinking from a fixed framework.
‘The pressure has to be higher. That happens for example through a war, as we are seeing now. I find it difficult that the same discussion is repeatedly on the table: it costs a lot of money and if we in the Netherlands take the lead, we price ourselves out of the market. I am glad that Europe is pushing much harder than the Dutch government on sustainability. There is quite a bit of technology available, but the large scale is lacking. I find the link to the financial sector very interesting. You see that financial institutions have drawn up guidelines to check investments for climate impact via the Taskforce for Climaterelated Financial Disclosures. They have the ability to put pressure on the chemical sector. Which is capital intensive, and you have to make big investments to adjust the course. This year the so-called EU taxonomy was launched. This is the basis for laws and regulations surrounding sustainable investments and provides guidelines for financial institutions based on which they can test their loan portfolios for sustainability. How green are your investments? Then you do get a picture of the risks.’
What has disappointed you over the years at MVO Netherlands?
‘You do live in a kind of green bubble. The other day I came across a company that was not at all concerned with energy efficiency and greening the energy supply. They knew about it, but they didn’t involve themselves in the necessity. That shocked me. The industry vision is that they are going to become much more circular, but they still expect to use some fossil resources in 2050. I find that disappointing. And there are still perverse price incentives. Fossil is too cheap and the sector is too unaware of the choices they are making. Policy in the Netherlands could be much stricter.’
‘In addition, I have become more aware of how strongly the existing economy lobbies. Perhaps we should also hold shareholders accountable for the negative impact companies have due to the course taken under the influence of shareholders. The lawsuits against companies or actions by shareholders like Follow This do make me hopeful.’
And what have you been pleased with?
‘In many companies you really see intrinsic motivation to work on sustainability. Many SMEs are trying to make their operations more sustainable. It is now normal within the chemical industry at companies large and small to talk about the climate, and sustainable development goals (SDGs) are no longer an exception.’
What really needs to happen to make a difference?
’An accelerated introduction of the hydrogen economy, with sustainable production of chemicals from CO2 and hydrogen, circular and bio-based raw materials. Collecting and recycling all plastics. And I think introducing ‘real’ prices for products and services will be a gamechanger. Starting with carbon pricing for all sectors, not just industry. This is going to reward the sustainable leaders in chemistry and support collaboration in the chain for sustainability. In addition, I think the Dutch government can be more bold: by purchasing sustainably and by doing in its policies what is necessary to meet the Paris Agreement and the SDGs. And not what is financially feasible or achievable from the support of the multinationals. It’s exciting, uncharted territory, but it’s badly needed when we look at the IPCC reports and the reports on biodiversity loss worldwide.’
CV Elsbeth Roelofs
MSc Chemische Technologie en MSc Filosofie en Sociologie van Wetenschap en Technologie, Universiteit Twente
Onderzoeker en projectmanager TNO; vanaf 2013 senior business consultant strategie & beleid
Senior programmamanager duurzaam chemisch bedrijf, MVO Nederland
Lid raad van advies International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3)