China's chemical industry needs to do more to build public trust regarding pollution and chemical health concerns, several senior industry officials said at a recent conference.
There are signs of an increasingly active Chinese public on environmental issues, such as a protest in Dalian last year that saw thousands of residents march through the downtown to demand the relocation of a factory making a building block of polycarbonate. More recently, industrial projects have been canceled this summer in Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces after sizable public protests about pollution.
Against that background, some industry officials used the conference as a platform to push for more action.
The suggestions delivered at the 2012 China Petroleum and Chemical International Conference in Tianjin included having more companies in China adopt the global Responsible Care standards governing environmental, health and safety operations, along with stepping up communication with the public.
As well, some suggested China look for lessons in Germany's chemical sector, whose representatives told a conference panel titled “Chemicals and Public Perception” that they've seen public opinion in Germany improve after chemical companies took a more open attitude and improved safety and environmental performance.
Public trust issues are not unique to China, and like chemical and plastics industries worldwide, Chinese companies believe they have a positive story to tell about how their materials are vital to modern life and can play a significant role in addressing problems like global warming.
But first, they suggested that public perception needs to be better dealt with.
Zhao Jungui, vice chairman of the Beijing-based China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation, told the panel China's industry is serious about making improvements, and as an example pointed to the CPCIF last year working with the Chinese government to adopt the Responsible Care program in China.
Almost 100 percent of the chemical factories in China's 160 designated chemical industrial parks have signed on for Responsible Care, he said. But one hurdle for wider participation is the diversity of companies, from world-class facilities to older or smaller factories outside the parks, he said.
“The challenge is that Chinese chemical companies vary a lot in size and capability,” Zhao said, adding that CPCIF is urging more participation from industry. Companies should “please walk the talk,” he said.
He said media coverage of chemical issues is not balanced, but he also said industry does not communicate well enough with the public and media: “We also have our own faults to blame.”
It's vital to get 100 percent industry participation in programs like Responsible Care because a small minority of problem companies can set the entire industry back, said Klaus Schäfer, president of Bayer MaterialScience China, who gave a presentation on the German industry's efforts to turn around public opinion after a series of industrial accidents in the 1980s.
“If there is 20 or 30 percent of our chemical industry not following that way, we will have no possibility to improve our reputation,” he said. “It is about the whole industry. CPCIF can help very much to achieve higher standards.
“Twenty percent black sheep can destroy the whole thing,” he said.
A member of the China Academy of Engineering who has studied the Dalian protests and similar situations said the public does not understand chemical issues and the media exaggerate risks, but agreed that industry does not do enough.
“The issue here is the lack of transparent communication between the chemical industry and the public,” said Jin Yong, a member of the academy and a professor in the department of chemical engineering at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
Two speakers from Germany said the industry there faced a difficult period in the early 1990s, including questions about its legitimacy as an industry, after a series of accidents that polluted rivers and contaminated residential areas.
“It became more and more difficult for our industry to operate in those days,” said Schäfer of BMS. “Our license to operate was at risk.”
Following pressure from government and environmental groups, industry worked to improve safety and reduce emissions, cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 1990 to 2005, while production rose by 60 percent, according to a presentation delivered by materials manufacturer Lanxess AG.
“This high pressure created by these organizations was forcing the German chemical industry to be very modern … and today I would say we still benefit from the developments we had in those days,” said Ralph Armbrust, head of corporate development for Lanxess Greater China.
“It's rather better to put a lot of pressure on industry so that they become stronger, and become fitter and the technology becomes better,” Armbrust told the conference.
“In those days in Germany, the companies did not see this, but I think today we can all be happy we went through this change and this evolution.”
Schäfer said the German industry also meets with politicians from environmental political parties to help them better understand the chemical industry: “We are communicating with people our predecessors might have seen as enemies.”
A group of 50 foreign chemical companies operating in China, the Beijing-based Association of International Chemical Manufacturers, have been working with Chinese companies and government agencies on Responsible Care and have hosted open houses in China's chemical industry parks.
“Let me use this opportunity to encourage everyone in the industry to implement Responsible Care — it is the safest way to increase your company's bottom line and be sustainable at the same time,” said AICM President Peter Von Zumbusch in a speech at the conference. He is also president of Wacker Chemicals (China) Co. Ltd., part of Munich-based Wacker Chemie AG.
“Today the public perception of the chemical industry is still not so favorable in China,” he said.
AICM members account for about 15 percent of China's chemical production.
The Tianjin conference, held Sept. 10-12, was hosted by CPCIF and the Tianjin city government, and organized by Houston-based consulting firm IHS Chemical and the AICM.