Chemical industry needs more Responsible Care

More than 25 years since Canada’s chemical industry launched what has become the worldwide Responsible Care program, a landmark initiative under which the industry claims to take responsibility for stewardship of its activities and products, users are still dumping a seabird-killing product of the chemical industry into the world’s oceans. Thousands of seabirds are dying as a result. GallonDaily’s editor was part of a multistakeholder pre-launch analysis of the Responsible Care initiative and recalls advising the industry that it will only work if it is properly enforced.

The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is calling on the UK government to use its power in internati0nal shipping agencies to implement a total prohibition on the dumping of polyisobutene (PIB) from ships.

PIB is the basis of butyl, or synthetic, rubber, but it is also used as a component of chewing gum, sealants, roof membranes, tire inner tubes, bladders for sporting balls (like footballs and basket balls, and as an performance-enhancing additive for fuels and lubricants. This is one of the applications which brings it on board ships, though there is also substantial transportation of bulk PIB around the world.

Currently, the international convention on marine pollution allows the dumping of small amounts of PIB from ships. This occurs when ships dump ballast water or clean out their tanks. On contact with seawater, PIB forms a very sticky mass that floats on the water and does not biodegrade. Seabirds, especially those that dive for their food, are liable to become entangled by this sticky mass which they are then unable to clean from their feathers.

According to the RSPB, more than 4,000 dead seabirds covered in PIB have been washed up on UK shores in recent months. The RSPB states that the actual death toll is probably far greater.

PIB is not a niche product made by backyard entrepreneurs. It is produced by some of the world’s largest chemical companies and global consumption was over 850,000 tonnes in 2011, with the USA as the leading producer.

Chemical companies seem to be adept at vigilance when it is in their economic interests to do so. For example, one such company chases farmers into court when they are found to be planting seeds containing a genetic trait that is covered by the company’s patent. GallonDaily suggests that if chemical companies want to minimize national and international regulation of their products  they should exercise the same diligence when it comes to stewardship of a product that is actually killing seabirds. Failing to do so puts the credibility of the entire chemical industry, and more particularly of its Responsible Care program, at significant risk. People are likely to come to the conclusion that the only option is more regulation of the products of an irresponsible industry.

The RSPB statement on polyisobutene is online at http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/345758-working-with-the-shipping-industry-to-prevent-discharge-of-seabird-killing-substance

An RSPB briefing document on PIB, and a link to a video showing the harm that PIB causes to seabirds, are available at http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/PIB_and_seabirds_RSPB_Briefing_17_Apr_2013_tcm9-344511.pdf

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