Turning waste into wealth
An ICI case study

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Page 1: Introduction

The challenge facing the world economy today is to provide sustainable approaches to economic growth. Industrial processes have the potential to provide better living standards, improved education and health care. However, careless industrialisation can lead to negative development, such as pollution - a difficult and expensive problem to solve, which can often lead to the quality of living standards falling. One drawback of industrial processes is the creation of waste products. These waste products enter a ‘sink’ which can sometimes ‘overflow’, harming the environment so that the wider resource base may be depleted.

It is, therefore, vitally important for industry and the community to develop methods of limiting the harmful effects of the ‘waste sink’ and, wherever possible of converting ‘waste’ into productive outputs. This study provides such an example showing how ICI Polyurethanes recycles agricultural by-products, such as straw, rice husks or sugar cane bagasse, for markets of global proportions. It shows how forward-thinking organisations can meet the challenge set out by Gro Harlem Brundtland (Prime Minister of Norway who chaired the Rio Conference in 1992), defining the need for:

‘Development which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

The case study shows how new technology, developed by ICI, enabled the conversion of agricultural waste by-products into high value materials for building and other industrial uses.

Problem 1 - agricultural by-products

Current trends in world population growth indicate that the demand for food will steadily increase, creating greater amounts of agricultural by-products. Each year, approximately one billion tonnes of these by-products are created through the production of food worldwide. These by-products are unavoidable and were originally considered to be largely unusable. Finding ways to dispose of the waste with minimal impact on the environment is one of today’s greatest challenges. Until recently, these by-products were disposed of by methods such as field burning, which caused increased concerns over public health and environmental problems such as the greenhouse effect and ozone layer depletion.

Problem 2 - declining availability of wood products

Wood products are a major component of everyday life. Their supply, however, becomes more limited (and more expensive) each day. In addition, concern about deforestation and the subsequent restrictions on timber harvesting have led to a world-wide search for alternative fibre sources. One of the alternative sources is agricultural by-products, resulting in a new superior building product, and also bringing tremendous environmental and economic benefits.

ICI | Turning waste into wealth