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Ethical Corporation editor Terry Slavin interviews Dirk Jan de With, chief procurement officer for German chemicals company Covestro
When Germany polymers company Bayer Material Science approached the man in charge of procurement for Unilever’s sustainable living brands about taking a similar role for its entire supply chain, Dirk Jan de With was bemused.
He had spent 27 years working at Unilever, and his job, he says, “was a totally exciting one that took me out into the fields in Myanmar, India, Vietnam etc working with smallholder farmers helping them to develop in a good way, and at the same time getting traceable and sustainable ingredients in the products of Unilever. …. My first reaction was: You’ve got the wrong guy because I know nothing about the chemicals industry.”
But he agreed to have a meeting with two board members , and was “positively surprised” when they outlined what the polymers industry, and Bayer in particular, was doing to push the envelope in using the planet's resources more efficiently. “When they told me that they were cracking the process of making materials from CO2, I thought, ‘this is a new world’.”
Three weeks later, in September 2015, it was announced that Bayer was spinning off its $12.3bn material science unit into an independent company, Covestro, and De With decided to make the jump.
The new company, based in Leverkusen, Germany, was a departure from the parent company in more ways than one. It had a new mission, “to make the world a brighter place”, and a baked-in social and environmental remit: CEO Patrick Thomas announced that Covestro would drive growth "through profitable technologies and products that benefit society and reduce environmental impacts”.
‘When they told me that they were cracking the process of making materials from CO2, I thought, this is a new world’
Last July it put meat on those bones by setting five non-financial measurable targets that it wants to achieve by 2025, including dedicating 80% of its research and development expenditures to delivering sustainability solutions, in line with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It also wants to halve specific CO2 emissions per metric ton of product relative to a 2005 baseline. The company had previously set a target of a 40% target by 2020, but achieved this in 2015.
Another commitment was for Covestro to work with its larger suppliers for them to comply fully with its sustainability requirements by 2025.
That sustainability remit was clearly why the company went knocking on Unilever's door, rather than elsewhere in the chemicals industry, for the expertise needed to head up its procurement team.
Almost two years into the job, De With is still on a learning curve. “Every day, being so new in the industry, I am amazed to learn about something clever that Covestro is doing.”
The previous day, for example, he found out that Covestro has developed coatings to make wind turbine blades corrosion-resistant, a huge issue that impairs the performance of wind farms in the North Sea's harsh environment.
Improving the efficiency of the wind industry, which is seeing double-digit annual growth, is in fact a big focus area for the company, which has a competence centre in Denmark coordinating its global wind energy programme.
In June the company announced that it had received certification from international standards board DNV GL for an innovative new technology for manufacturing wind turbine rotor blades, mixing its polyurethane resin with a glass fibre fabric to make a blade that is both lighter and longer.
De With points out that polymers, though they are made from fossil fuels, have a hugely important role to play in the low carbon future. "It's not bad to use carbon but we need to be clever as a society to use it in a way that contributes to more sustainable solutions," De With says.
He gives another example of the global move towards electric vehicles. "The battery is very heavy so you want to ensure the rest of the vehicle is as light as possible" in order to make them fuel-efficient.
Covestro is innovating in substituting heavier materials such as steel and aluminium, which can make up 80% of the weight of a car today, with a polycarbonate composite that is a fraction of their weight.
‘Electric car batteries are very heavy so you want to ensure the rest of the vehicle is as light as possible to make them fuel-efficient’
In resource terms this is a double win, as steel and aluminium are highly energy-intensive to produce, he points out.
A third example is insulation. Rigid polyurethane foams for insulating buildings that use Covestro's chemicals can reduce energy losses in buildings by between 25% and 50%, the company says.
Covestro has also been innovating in trying to lessen its dependency on fossil fuels. Last year it opened a new €15m factory at Dormagen near Cologne that uses CO2 from the waste stream of a neighbouring coal-fired power plant in place of petrochemical-derived polyol to produce a key component for foams used in mattresses and upholstered furniture. The CO2 content in the new polyol, called cardyon, comprises roughly 20%.
Additional projects are also coming onstream to use CO2 in other applications such as elastomers, moldable plastics used in items such as hoses and seals.
"Using CO2 as a feedstock is an incredibly important step, the product of 10 years of research with Aachen University and other partners to crack that process," De With said.
In June this year Covestro announce another research breakthrough: in collaboration with partners it has come up with a new process to make aniline, an important basic chemical, using plant-based materials.
Covestro uses aniline as feedstock to make its rigid polyurethane foams. While Covestro currently derives aniline from benzene, the new process uses industrial sugar. To be sustainable, De With said, the sugar will have to be derived from a source that does not compete with food.
This is territory De With knows well from his time at Unilever, and having served as president of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, a global initiative set up by the food industry with over 40 members aimed at supporting the development of sustainable agriculture worldwide.
That cross-industry collaboration is similar in nature to the chemicals industry’s Together for Sustainability programme, in which 16 of the world’s biggest chemical companies work together to drive sustainable environmental, social and economic practices through their shared supply chains. Assessments and audits of one supplier for one company are shared by all customers. Members include BASF, Bayer, Akzo Nobel, Clariant, DSM, DuPont, Eastman, Merck and Syngenta.
Covestro sees enabling affordable housing, preventing food spoilage and improving hygiene as areas where its materials can make a difference
“It’s exactly the same as I did in the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative. At the time it was set up by Nestle, Danone and Unilever, big competitors. But they saw the need to address sustainability in the upstream supply chain in a very common way.” Having a single assessment and auditing process, he says, “has really helped us to accelerate the implementation of those kind of assessments in the whole industry around the globe.”
De With says the assessments are only the first step, and suppliers have to be motivated to improve their scores.
Covestro also has its own key performance indicators in line with its 2025 sustainability targets that it does not share with the rest of the industry. One of these is to contribute to improving the lives of 10 million people in underserved markets, primarily in developing countries.
It sees enabling affordable housing, preventing food spoilage and improving hygiene as areas where its materials can make a difference, and is working in collaboration with its upstream suppliers, governmental and non-governmental organisations to develop solutions.
“In Asia, with a team in Thailand, we are working on sustainable [low-cost] housing and solar driers, little greenhouses made from polycarbonates, our material, which is a very hygenic environment to grow fruit and vegetables.” He said farmers had reported increase yields of 45% as a result of the greenhouses.
Covestro also supplied the polyurethane for the House of Nations, a pilot affordable building unveiled in Germany this year that is built to passive house standards, requiring no additional heating source beyond the occupants’ body heat, with highly insulated and lightweight wall panels kilograms and an outer envelope fully insulated with polyurethane.
Beyond the low energy use in its construction, its affordability and low energy requirements will benefit residents, De With says: “This could really help people’s lives if we can roll it out.”Project Drawdown bioplastics carbon productivity renewables China SDGs electric cars wind turbines