Chlorine/Mercury Phaseout No Time to Waste: Europe's Chlorine Industry and the Mercury Challenge

Author / Editor: Åke Eriksson * / Dominik Stephan

Time runs out for mercury cell technology in chlorine production, and alternatives are in high demand—Although the December 2017 deadline for the prohibition of mercury cell technology in the EU still seems to be quite far away, time is running out for chlorine producers who have yet to start the conversion or closure process. Even though the regulatory pressures hit a struggling industry hard, it is important to start investigating cost-effective solutions.

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No time to waste: 3035 kilotons of chlorine production in the EU still use mercury.
No time to waste: 3035 kilotons of chlorine production in the EU still use mercury.
(Source: Eurochlor Graphic: PROCESS)

Mercury is history — Or at least it will be in the near future. Recent regulatory changes have put the issue on top of the agenda across the European industry, particularly in the chemical sector where the mercury cell process is used for chlorine production.

Last year, the European Commission published revised Best Available Techniques (BAT) conclusions to limit the release of toxic substances into the environment. The reference documents clearly specify that the mercury process is no longer the most effective technique and should therefore be phased out by December 2017, a date that once may have seemed far enough away, but now is a looming reality.

Now that the conclusions have been published, local licencing authorities will start revising permits to ensure installations comply with the new conditions within the next three years. Extensions to the 2017 deadline are theoretically possible, but it will be very difficult to justify them, and a failure to meet the deadline will most likely result in hefty fines for the industry.

Chemical Industry under Pressure from all Sides

However, in a time where European markets in general are struggling, and the chemicals industry is working hard to keep its head above water, regulatory pressures to completely change the production process will obviously be a tremendous challenge for companies. The costs of both decommissioning old sites and opening new sites can be more than some companies are able to handle. It’s because of this that we’re hearing so many calls for postponing the regulatory implementation.

The big issue for the industry is that the one-time cost for converting will be so high that the efficiency savings through the new technology will only bear fruit in the long term. We are talking about decades before the conversion has the potential to pay off as a result of the reduced energy cost and other beneficial membrane performances. So although there clearly are benefits in the long term, the immediate burden for producers is high. Nonetheless, with only three years left on the current deadline, it is crucial that serious consideration is given to cost-effective closure solutions.