Speech by Stientje van Veldhoven, State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management, at the Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry (VNCI) gala dinner, Rijksmuseum, 26 October 2018
"Next to your knowledge and innovations, I need your commitment and leadership. Image what you, as large companies can change, if you decide to take your company to zero-waste!" Stientje van Veldhoven at the Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry dinner at the Rijksmuseum.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management, I can often be found in recycling centres and waste processing plants.
And I’m no stranger to industrial parks, production plants, terminal operators and chemical plants either.
But on those visits we’re all wearing a helmet, a safety vest, sturdy boots, glasses and ear-plugs. What a pleasant change this is, to meet you here, easily recognisable and I hope you left the ear-plugs at home!
I’d like to thank the VNCI for inviting me to this grand occasion. A fitting occasion, too, given the royal designation you’ve been granted in honour of your 100th anniversary. Congratulations!
The VNCI has reached a grand old age. But it doesn’t go back quite as far as the 17th century, when so many of these masterpieces were painted.
It was an age when painters’ workshops were a lot like chemical labs. The artists mixed all their own paints. Rembrandt was no different.
Each painter had their own secret mixes. Their own chemical signature.
For instance, it’s come to light – thanks in part to research by DSM – that Rembrandt used egg yolk in his painting of the Jewish Bride.
Bio-based paints and a bio-based economy. That was perfectly natural back then….
The 17th century was an age of experimentation. Of looking beyond boundaries.
Especially in alchemy, the predecessor of chemistry.
Practitioners sought the philosopher’s stone. The way to turn base metals into gold. And means to keep them eternally young.
Natural philosophers, like Isaac Newton, sought to understand life itself.
Everyone here this evening shares this same tradition of experimentation. Of looking beyond boundaries. Of seeking a fundamental understanding of life.
As our Dutch Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa puts it: ‘imagine the unimaginable’.
I often hear you say the same thing, using different words: ‘There’s nothing we can’t do.’
Looking at the enormous challenges we face and the enormous ambitions we want to achieve, we need your drive and your enthusiasm. And if you say that there’s nothing you can’t do, then here’s a goal for you:
A safe, climate-neutral world, and a zero-waste circular economy.
That’s what I dare you to sign up to. Because you are crucial to realise it.
Because chemistry is the foundation of everything: paints, medicines, fertilisers and textiles. Some chemical firms are household names, while others are completely unknown to the wider public.
I’m asking you to step out of the shadows and step up your ambitions.
Rembrandt was a master of light. And this evening I want to shine the spotlight on you.
And I mean each one of you personally. I know we are known to be impolitely direct, so I’m going to abuse that reputation.
I came back from my family holidays a day earlier to be here and to ask you a question:
What are you aiming for? Where have you made a difference? Not your company, but you – as a leader. Being a leader brings responsibility. Todays leaders decisions will be crucial. Your decisions will be crucial.
Three weeks ago, the IPCC published an alarming report. We need to step up our ambitions internationally. But we’ve all heard that before. So let me spell out what it means.
Looking at my own country, the case for urgency is clear. Two-thirds of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding. We earn 70 per cent of our GNP in a region that’s below sea level. Will future generations still be able to visit the Rijksmuseum to see the Night Watch – without a boat?
You can all give examples of how climate change is affecting your own countries. And you know about the global agenda for climate action.
Last month I attended the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. It’s not too late to prevent us going past the critical tipping points.
Climate action focuses strongly on energy. And that’s not without reason.
But we also need to look beyond energy.
If the Paris climate goals are a puzzle, then a circular economy is one of the missing pieces.
In 2050 there will be 10 billion of us. All these people will need food, energy, water and fertile land. And like every other generation before them, they’ll hope to live healthy, safe and prosperous lives.
Over the past century, our use of materials has increased by a factor of 34 and our use of fossil fuels by a factor of 12. If we go on like this, we’ll need three planets.
That’s why the circular economy has been included in the Netherlands’ National Climate Agreement.
And we’re one of the first countries to set quantitative targets. We want to halve the use of primary, fossil-based raw materials by 2030. And to have a fully circular economy by 2050.
The Netherlands wants to take the lead in this development because we see the importance of reducing waste. And because technical innovation creates new opportunities.
A climate-neutral, circular economy is going to be the new normal. The knowledge being developed now will be common knowledge in the future.
The chemical sector plays a vital role in this.
We need your knowledge and your innovations. Bio-based. Green chemistry. Circular. The fewer toxic substances, the more easily products can be recycled. We’ll resolve the raw material problem and prevent even more plastic soup.
In fact, plastic waste and plastic soup were among the subjects discussed this afternoon.
These are problems that can be solved. Every piece of plastic waste was produced, bought and thrown away. It’s the same type of problem as acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. We can solve it with a global strategy. And you’re a global industry. That’s where you come in.
Because next to your knowledge and innovations, I need your commitment and leadership. Image what you, as large companies can change, if you decide to take your company to zero-waste.
Earlier this month I launched an initiative with a great many partners and companies to sign a plastic pact. Phase out single use plastic. Reusing high-grade plastics. Combatting plastic soup. This will be the Dutch contribution to a plastic summit next March.
Companies like Unilever, IKEA and Philips are committed to using more recyclate in their products. But they also demand guarantees about its quality and continuity. That’s where you can help.
If we aim for a zero waste industry, then every product and every production process has to be inherently safe.
There’s been a lot of progress already. Thanks to EU legislation like REACH, many toxic substances have been banned. Including products containing lead or PCBs.
At the same time, things aren’t going as fast as they should. Because many substances are being replaced by chemically similar substances that are only a little less toxic. Like the many different types of persistent compounds, plasticisers and fire retardants. Are they always necessary? Are there alternatives?
What’s needed is innovation at fundamental level. We need materials that are genuinely new. That make toxic additives redundant. That are – as a result – easier to recycle and reuse.
Science, industry and government in the Netherlands are working to establish a new partnership called Safety Delta Netherlands. It’s going to lead to a knowledge agenda on safety, an incident database and a training curriculum. All aimed at making the Dutch petrochemical industry the safest in the world by 2030.
Let me conclude by briefly taking this wonderful backdrop as our inspiration.
The chemical sector invented paint in a tube, ending the unhealthy practice of mixing your own paints.
It’s time for each one of us to contribute to a masterpiece: a climate neutral and zero waste sector.
In a recent radio interview, the deejay asked me: is this a personal mission for you? My answer was ‘Yes. It is personal’.
The Netherlands may only be a small country. We may not be able to solve climate change on our own. But change is the result of human effort. Every single person has their role to play.
When my children grow up and ask me: what did you do when you were in a position to change things? I want to be able to say: ‘I did everything I could’.
What is your answer going to be?