EU introduces new chemicals strategy

Article by Amanda Doyle

THE European Commission has unveiled its new chemicals strategy which aims to make chemicals production more sustainable while phasing out potentially harmful substances such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and endocrine disrupters.

Released on 14 October, the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability still has to be approved by the European Parliament and the European Council. It is part of the EU’s zero pollution ambition, which is a key commitment of the European Green Deal. The European Green Deal is the EU’s plan to make the economy sustainable by 2050 through initiatives such as restoring biodiversity, cutting pollution, decarbonising energy, improving energy efficiency of buildings, and making transport cleaner.

The new strategy is the biggest reform for EU hazardous substances since the introduction of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation in 2006.

The chemicals strategy aims to boost innovation for safe and sustainable chemicals, including prohibiting the most harmful chemicals in consumer products. It will phase out PFAS and endocrine disrupters from consumer products unless their use is proven essential. PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” as they are highly persistent in the environment and are thought to cause a range of health problems.

Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, said: “The Chemicals Strategy is the first step towards Europe's zero pollution ambition. Chemicals are part and parcel of our daily life, and they allow us to develop innovative solutions for greening our economy. But we need to make sure that chemicals are produced and used in a way that does not hurt human health and the environment.”

It aims to make chemicals “safe and sustainable by design” from production to end of life by developing new criteria and providing financial support for commercialisation. The aim is to become active rather than reactive so that instead of removing chemicals from the market after they’ve been found to be harmful, they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the market until fully assessed. The Commission said that making chemicals more sustainable will also be a great economic opportunity, as well as enabling the green transition.

It also aims to have an EU research and innovation agenda for chemicals to fill knowledge gaps, and to simplify and consolidate the EU legal framework.

Removing harmful substances will also make recycling easier and help to move towards a circular economy. FEAD, the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services, supported the strategy but also called for practicable and risk-based guidance for waste operators and appropriate incentives to help finance new technologies. Peter Kurth, President of FEAD, said: “The EU must keep in mind that our sector needs clear and practical rules to guarantee high-quality secondary raw materials".

Uncoordinated policy

The strategy has generally been welcomed, however there are still some concerns that the policy doesn’t go far enough.

Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of environmental NGO CHEM Trust, said: “This strategy has the potential to set Europe on a new path for better protection from toxic chemicals, while steering companies to detoxify their supply chains. It contains many important elements including a horizontal approach for the identification and control of endocrine disruptors.

“We welcome the commitment to investigate increasing controls on chemicals in consumer products that negatively affect the immune or neurological systems. As we pointed out in our ‘No Brainer’ report in 2017, there is extensive evidence that chemicals disrupt neurological development. And the persistent and polluting PFAS are just one example of chemicals that can disrupt the immune system. However, we are concerned about the risk that the planned impact assessment as part of this investigation could result in further delays in addressing these hazardous substances.”

Marco Mensink, Director General of Cefic, welcomed the strategy but also said it was a missed opportunity to accelerate how the chemical industry delivers on the Green Deal. He also said that the strategy reads as a list of regulatory measures with no detail on how they will be joined up, how it will deal with issues like Brexit, or how they will deal with Green Deal objectives.

“This is especially concerning at a time when the rest of the world has not yet followed REACH and is unlikely to. With 96% of manufactured goods relying on chemicals, Europe’s chemical industry is at the heart of almost all value chains and Green Deal solutions, from solar panels to batteries, wind turbines and hydrogen to building insulation, EU-made pharmaceuticals and more powerful electronics, to name just a few.”

“This uncoordinated policy risks undermining the role the EU’s homegrown industry can play, in favour of simply outsourcing the Green Deal technology solutions to other parts of the world.”

Mensink said that the strategy lacked ambition to drive the unprecedented scales of investment that is needed. “What Europe still needs is a Green Deal ‘game plan’ for its chemical industry, from large companies to SMEs and all its downstream customers, which can deliver the investments needed at scale to meet the chemical strategy goals and at the same time invest in things like electric crackers, hydrogen, chemical recycling, carbon capture storage and utilisation. Companies need the right policy signals and signposts to invest at unprecedented new scale in Europe, and above all industry needs regulatory predictability.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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