Into the crucible: Will the European chemicals industry rise to the circularity challenge?


The stakes are big. According to the UN “Global Chemicals Outlook” (2019), chemicals sales more than doubled between 2004 and 2014, and are geared towards doubling again by 2030 and potentially quadrupling by 2060. As for Europe, its 28,000 chemical companies with 1.2 million employees added a record €565 billion of value to the European economy in 2018 alone, making it the fourth largest industry in the EU.

With 90% of GDP growth taking place outside Europe in the coming decades, the challenge for the chemicals industry will be to find its place in this growing global market. Can it achieve this better by continuing its transformation into a sustainable industry that supplies other sustainable industries, or should it rather focus on price competitiveness and pushing for more lax regulation?

Europe has recognized that its future competitive edge will be based on resource efficiency and high-quality durable products, so increasing the production of more sustainable chemicals seems the obvious way to go.

The COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted Europe’s need to reinforce strategic autonomy, public health, and environmental standards. But the European market is also seen by many leading companies as the testing ground for what will happen in other global regions in future decades.

The trouble with hazardous substances

21,515 chemical substances were registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) by 2018, and more and more of these substances are classified as being “hazardous” under the EU’s Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) regulation system.

That means that some 60% of the chemicals circulating on the European market (by weight) have been identified as hazardous for human health and the environment, including basic chemicals like oxygen or hydrogen, that are needed to produce other chemicals, and household products, from detergents and disinfectants to vinegar.

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Packaging Europe, 24 September 2020