“State of the art” – How a term can hinder circular development

Outdated association structures and fear of investments prevent environmental protection in the hot-dip galvanizing industry

The Corona crisis is currently changing the way we see our lives. What is really important for the survival of industrial societies? In her Circular Economy Package, EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has explicitly provided that all rules of the game that are being reinvented are based on the “best available technologies”. With the presentation of the “Masterplan for a competitive transformation of the energy intensive industries, enabling a climate neutral Circular Economy by 2050” by the EU Commission at the beginning of this year, this requirement also applies to German industry. The realization that a consistent circular economy makes a significant contribution to climate protection is thus gaining ground. This is opposed by long-established, powerful associations and lobby groups, which all too often use their not inconsiderable political power to prevent changes. They have not yet understood that every euro saved in environmental or climate protection will cost them dearly.

A good example of this are the factories in the galvanizing industry that belong to Wiegel, Seppeler or Zinkpower. Closed systems with extraction and exhaust gas purification from so-called pretreatment lines have been protecting employees and the environment there for over two decades. Not in other factories of the branch. How can that be?

In Germany there are around 147 galvanizing plants that employ around 4,800 people and generate sales of around  760 million Euro. In 2017, 110,000 tons of zinc were used to galvanize approximately 1.9 million tons of steel. The largest plants have galvanizing tanks with a length of 19.5 meters.

The above-mentioned companies in the galvanizing industry have long been trying to change the “state of the art” or the applicable VDI guideline 2579 through the Federal Environment Agency as part of the revision of the European guideline defining the “state of the art”. This guideline dates from 1988 and has not been changed since then and regulates the work with open acid baths. Emission measurements are not provided, limit values ​​are not specified. According to the state of the art, this is a completely unacceptable condition for occupational and environmental protection. However, the responsible authorities and bodies are currently not planning to change the directive.

In the draft of the document “Best Available Techniques (BAT) Reference Document for the Ferrous Metals Processing Industry” available at the European level in accordance with the “Industrial Emissions Directive 2010/75 / EU (Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control)”, there are no key provisions to make housing, extraction and exhaust gas cleaning mandatory in the galvanizing industry, especially for acid baths during pretreatment.

This contrasts with the experience, for example, of the Wiegel Group, which began to house galvanizing and pretreatment lines in 1991 and has been equipping all new pretreatment lines with air washers since 2001. The effects are enormous. Savings in natural gas energy of 500 thousand Euro per year and 500 thousand Euro in landfill of hazardous waste fade almost compared to savings of 3.5 million Euro in the raw material zinc and thus 8000 tons of CO2 per year. The economy has been sustainably improved with consistent ecology.

To achieve this, no multi-million-dollar research contracts were awarded or new, groundbreaking technologies were developed. Common sense and the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions together with the state of the art were sufficient to bring about drastic improvements for the environment, occupational safety and the economic situation of the company. The principle “There is no limit to innovation” documents behavior that is worthy of a price in an industry that otherwise is saving on investment in innovation.

Lessons learnt?

In Germany, Europe and worldwide, important projects are taking a back seat until the pandemic has been overcome. There is no serious date today, but the crisis will end at some point. Then the climate problem is still unsolved and the climate crisis will raise our awareness of the topic again with the next storm. It is our job to use the time until then to create the changed conditions in order to get better at coping with the crisis. Our behavior has a direct and immediate impact on the environment and the climate, which we experienced in the Corona crisis. But that also means that we can change something directly and immediately.

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