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Quantifying the ramp-up of bio-based and recycled materials

Manufacturers and suppliers across industries are hard at work to improve the carbon footprint of their respective activities. From consumer electronics to personal care, food and even mobility, the range of applications where fossil materials can be replaced with sustainable alternatives is vast, and increasingly ambitious environmental goals are pushing the envelope at an unprecedented pace.

In line with our One Planet commitments, Solvay wants to help customers reach their performance and sustainability goals by switching to ‘renewable carbon’ (i.e. bio-based or recycled-based products, or with carbon capture). And the way to do that as efficiently and accurately as possible is to opt for a Mass Balance approach. 

“As a leading chemical company, Solvay is committed to leveraging our scientific expertise and engaging with our partners to help solve the world’s most pressing issues of carbon footprint and resource depletion by developing sustainable innovative products,” explains Bianca Shemper, PhD, Solvay International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) Program Manager. “The mass balance approach enables us to contribute to the bio-based economy, circularity, and sustainability.”

Learn about Solvay's first ISCC PLUS certified mass balance vanillin

What is Mass Balance Approach?

Solvay’s Corporate Sustainability Officer Pilar Gamboa makes the analogy with powering your home with renewable electricity. “When you buy green energy, every single electron doesn’t necessarily come from renewable sources; it’s all mixed together,” she explains. “So what you do is calculate proportions to make sure it balances out. It’s the same thing for chemistry: Complex processes mix biomaterials with non-biomaterials, and then you infer the overall proportion in the final product.”

Thanks to the tracing of the flow of materials through the entire value chain, the mass balance approach is key in monitoring the gradual replacement of fossil materials with renewable ones. As a result, it makes it possible to certify the renewable quantities and allocate them to specific products.

And speaking of certification, that’s one fundamental element in the process to ensure environmental claims are rooted in reality and thorough. Renewable Carbon Certification is conducted by third-party organizations and takes into account land use, biodiversity, soil, water, air and social criteria. 

“The mass balance approach has been used in the chemical industry for years, including by Solvay, but now we are actively engaged in the process of applying for certification for a wide range of products, to offer guarantees that our materials are sustainably sourced,” adds Pilar. “Chemically speaking, it’s often difficult to calculate exact percentages, but resorting to certification ensures it’s done properly.”

Getting our materials certified for renewable carbon makes a big difference for our customers. It’s a complex process but a virtuous cycle.

Pilar Gamboa, Corporate Sustainability Officer, Solvay

A renewable carbon strategy

One example of a decade-long application of the mass balance approach can be found in palm oil. By taking part in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Solvay has been working with certified suppliers, with guarantees in terms of banning deforestation and child labor, for example.

What’s new today is the implementation of a certification with a much broader scope. ISCC Plus, part of the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification system, covers all sustainable feedstocks as well as processes such as carbon capture. “This is what we’re working on developing,” continues Pilar. “There have been various specific initiatives throughout Solvay, but now we’re going for a Group-wide, structured approach.”

By adhering to ISCC Plus, the Group is placing its products within a globally acknowledged standard, thus making it easier for the entire value chain to appreciate their sustainability benefits. "The ISSC Plus principles ensure the traceability of the content of circular and renewable feedstock in materials, like in our Rhovanil® MB Vanillin,” says Jo Grosemans, Naturals Growth Director at Solvay’s Aroma Performance business unit. "As a result, users of certified materials can claim a reduced carbon footprint for their formulations, and brand owners can document the enhanced sustainability toward consumers.”



The first ISCC Plus-certified Solvay product, or rather range of products, is the Specialty Polymers ReCycle portfolio. “We are first today in the market to offer mass balance specialty polymers and our customers really appreciate our efforts,” says Ysée Genot, E-Mobility & Sustainability Marketing Manager at Solvay’s Materials business unit. “Mass balance is a bridge to the circular economy.”

The Group’s site in Augusta, Georgia (USA) gained ISCC Plus certification in October 2022 for the recycled-based sulfone monomer it manufactures, which is an ingredient for the production of Udel® PSU ReCycle MB and Radel® PPSU ReCycle MB sulfone polymers, high-performance plastics that are used in household appliances, consumer electronics and the automotive industry. “The mass balance certification of some of our high performance polymer grades allows our customers to go forward to more circular end products,” adds Claire Guerrero, Solvay’s Marketing Manager for the Materials segment. “Our mass balance products bring a sustainability advantage without compromising on performance.”

Learn more about Solvay’s Specialty Polymers

Following this initial certification, other Solvay business units such as Novecare and Aroma Performance are engaged in adopting the mass balance approach for the bio-based ingredients they produce for the Homecare, Personal Care and Food & Fragrance segments (such as Rhovanil® vanillin for example) and getting them ISCC Plus certified. 

“Reducing our environmental impact implies a complete change of the way we select our raw materials,” says Chloé Moreau, in charge of sustainability at Solvay’s Novecare business unit. “Compared to a segregated scheme, the mass balance scheme allows a cheaper and faster transition to alternative raw materials with lower environmental impacts, without altering the final product's characteristics.”



Innovating with bio-sourced products

What’s true for existing bio-sourced products is also valid for upcoming innovations. “We’re busy identifying new opportunities, looking at new product developments that will enable us to move towards future certification,” says Pilar.
Certification is a relatively lengthy process that requires collaborating with third-party organizations for each different country, but it’s an effort worth making. Pilar explains: “Getting our materials certified for renewable carbon enables us to be more compliant with increasingly stringent regulations, and it makes a big difference for our customers. We also need to make sure our suppliers and their suppliers are certified. It’s a complex process, but a virtuous cycle. In the future, it’s highly likely this will become mandatory, so we’re getting ahead.”