Tatiana Santos, Policy manager for chemicals & Nanotechnology at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), explains how the EU’s REACH regulation can boost the uptake of green chemistry.
Exposure to synthetic chemical substances is an increasing global problem. Global chemicals sales more than doubled between 2004 and 2014 (reaching €542 in the EU in 20171) and are set to quadruple by 2060.
Chemical production is growing faster than both gross domestic product (GDP) and population. Production levels of chemicals have increased from one tonne in the 1930s to well over 500 million tonnes today.
In Europe, between 2007 and 2016, nearly 930 million tonnes of substances were produced.
Most are harmful. 70% of the chemicals present in the EU market are considered to have hazardous properties.2 The production of toxic groups of chemicals in EU is also increasing. New formulations for pesticides, for instance, are from ten to 100 times more toxic than those from 1975. Especially worrying is the increase in production in the EU (since 2016) of the most toxic categories of chemicals classified by the EU, a worrying trend if continued.
Toxics can have a remarkable impact on firms’ competitiveness and their capacity to innovate. Businesses using obsolete and hazardous chemistry are forced to invest considerable amounts of money, for example, in risk management measures, waste management, payment of sanctions, and overall legislative compliance, to try to keep these substances on the market.
For instance, the costs related to authorisation applications under the principal EU’s chemicals legislation, REACH, to continue using substances of very high concern (SVHCs), range from €5,000 to €55,000. In addition, it is estimated that industry spends millions of euros a year on lobbying the competent authorities not to regulate their chemicals. Nevertheless, sooner or later, the substances of most concern will be regulated and/or phased out, and those companies using hazardous chemistry risk being shut down.
Meanwhile, those companies that have invested in sustainable innovation are saved from having to invest in such practices and will be rewarded with market opportunities that follow the ban of a substance.
This is where green chemistry offers a heartening opportunity to shift the most toxic categories of chemicals to the least harmful ones and boost the green economy as it helps to safeguard the production sites of the chemical industry and its user industries in the long term and promotes the creation of green jobs, high standards of occupational health and safety, as well as environmental and consumer protection. Furthermore, it stimulates innovative solutions and new market opportunities.
Barriers to the implementation of green chemistry
- But why is applying green chemistry principles, when designing chemicals, not the rule, but the exemption? There are several barriers to the implementation of green chemistry as common practice such as:
- A lack of education and consistent definitions and experience
- A company’s old fashioned policy/mindset and natural human resistance to change, together with a reluctance to experiment with the unknown and fear of regrettable alternatives
- Technical, administrative and economic restraints
- A lack of regulatory/supply chain pressure and enforcement
Complex communication along the supply chain relating to the chemicals used and their properties
- A lack of understanding of the overall costs of substitution and safety by design practices
- A lack of specific funding programmes
- On the other hand, there are several factors that contribute to the uptake and development of green chemistry, including:
- Supply chain requirements
- Workers and environmental protection costs
- Pressure from the public and workers
A good example of market pressure is the project called Ask REACH by a group of NGOs (including the European Environmental Bureau, EEB), academics, and environment agencies. Ask REACH will allow consumers to find out if SVHCs are used in the products they are buying through an app that scans products. The Ask REACH group hopes that it will give people the power to move away from goods that contain these hazardous chemicals and will also encourage producers to substitute them with safer ones.
Regulation as the main driver to innovation
However, laws on chemicals management and environmental protection are acknowledged by all as the main driver to bringing safer chemicals to the market. REACH is seen as a very powerful promoter of sustainable innovation and green chemistry.
REACH also grants potential exemptions from registration for five years for substances used in research and development, which favours new innovative materials on the EU market.
The REACH registration process is increasing the information on toxicological and ecotoxicological properties of substances. Unfortunately, the information provided by companies is far from being complete and reliable.
According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), 70% of the registration dossiers do not comply with the legal requirements. According to a three year investigation by national authorities made public last year, companies are breaking EU law by failing to report whether their substances are cancer causing, neurotoxic, mutagenic, bioaccumulative and/or harmful to developing children or human fertility to the ECHA.
This is a missed opportunity since registration is an important step that allows downstream users to better understand the properties of the substances they handle and also gives some information on possible alternative substances and processes. The EU authorities should improve enforcement, transparency and market access, as these are the best incentives for companies to comply.
The REACH authorisation process
But the main instrument provided by REACH to spike green chemistry and sustainable innovation is undoubtedly the authorisation process, which facilitates the phasing out of hazardous chemicals and substituting them with safer alternatives.
The goal of authorisation is that substances of very high concern3 are progressively replaced by safer suitable alternative substances or technologies.
The first step of authorisation is the identification of a SVHC to be included in the so-called candidate list, an early warning of the substances that should be first substituted as they would not be allowed onto the European market.
Although the process is ‘extremely slow, as acknowledged by the European Commission in its report on the second REACH Review, the candidate listing is already having a real impact on innovation as it incentivises greener chemicals (and technologies). The study ‘driving innovation’ by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), showed how patented inventions were spectacularly boosted when the REACH Regulation was adopted in 2006. When SVHCs are included in the candidate list officially, the ‘invention’ trend is intensified.
Once those SVHCs are further prioritised in the ‘authorisation list’, they will require use-specific permission before they can be employed, and substitution will have priority. To this end, all companies that apply for a use-specific permission analyse the availability of alternatives and consider their risks, as well as the technical and economic feasibility of substitution.
Where suitable alternatives are available and the substance cannot be adequately controlled, an application for authorisation should not be granted.
Even if it is granted, its use will be reviewed if new information on possible substitutes becomes available. This is a very strong incentive for companies using SVHCs to look for intrinsically safer alternatives.
Authorisation aims to favour competitors producing and using safer alternatives rather than laggards using or producing hazardous/obsolete chemicals. In turn, the substitution of hazardous chemicals by safer solutions helps to safeguard the production sites of the chemical industry and its user industries in the long term and promotes the creation of jobs and high standards of occupational health and safety, as well as environmental and consumer protection. Furthermore, it stimulates innovative solutions and new market opportunities.
Nevertheless, the current implementation flaws of the authorisation process are not allowing the system to show its best potential to effectively promote safer chemistries by design. As condemned by A roadmap to revitalise REACH, the banning of the most problematic chemicals is too slow to have a real impact on the European economy.
Too few substances are being put forward for authorisation, meaning that too few hazardous substances are being phased out, putting human health and the environment at risk and discouraging companies from innovation and substitution of SVHCs. Furthermore, many substances of concern are still being produced and used in the EU since, so far, all applications to keep production or use of SVHC, have been given blanket permission. With these decisions, the Commission incentivises use of SVHCs instead of encouraging substitution, dismissing the not-so-insignificant number of companies in Europe that are ahead of the regulation and are already finding alternatives to harmful chemicals. It is, therefore, penalising these businesses by leaving them at an economic disadvantage. It is they, not the laggards, which should be rewarded. In this way, REACH can also help support innovation and boost the Commission’s jobs and growth agenda, while protecting health and the environment.
All these shortcomings are impeding the EU to meet the World Summit Sustainability Development 2020 Goals, as acknowledged by the European Commission in its recent REACH review. In order to ensuring the achievement of these important goals, the EU should focus on:
- Implementing the ‘no data, no market’ principle
- Truly stimulating the substitution of toxic substances
- Encouraging proper EU-wide enforcement
- Making the consumer “’right to know’ more practicable
- Improving the identification of new SVHCs
A golden opportunity for green chemistry
All in all, REACH has a great potential to substantially encourage the transition to safer alternatives, while increasing market opportunities for ‘green’ companies and incentives for sustainable innovation. REACH is, therefore, a golden opportunity to promote the transition to more sustainable chemistry and create new green jobs through innovation.
The chemical industry could make an important contribution to sustainable development and make a tidy profit at the same time. Leading chemical companies agree that obsolete- persistent and hazardous chemistry have no future and producing safer chemicals is good for business. A report by a US-based business advocacy group, evaluating the business and economic value of safer chemistry, demonstrates that safer chemicals are the future for health, safety and business.
The European chemical industry should not miss the opportunity to become forerunners worldwide.
1 FACTS & FIGURES of the European chemical industry. CEFIC, 2018
3 SVHCs include substances that may cause cancer (carcinogens); may induce heritable genetic damage (mutagens); may impair fertility or cause irreversible harm to the offspring itself (reprotoxicants); do not break down easily in the environment but accumulate and persist in fatty tissues of animals and end up in the food chain and are also toxic in some cases (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic or very persistent and very accumulative, so called PBT/vPvB substances)
Policy Manager: Chemicals
European Environmental Bureau (EEB)
+32 2 289 10 94