Ex-chemicals agency chief: ‘Courage’ needed to rethink EU laws

Geert Dancet [European Parliament]

This article is part of our special report All that glitters is not just gold.

Europe’s chemical management rules, REACH, are over a decade old and the man seen as the architect of the legislation still thinks it is the most modern of its kind in the world. But the former boss of the European Chemicals Agency says the EU could do with going back to the drawing board.

Geert Dancet was executive director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) for a decade and former head of the European Commission’s REACH unit until 2007. He is now a consultant on chemicals legislation and competition matters.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan on the sidelines of the European Precious Metals Federation’s event on chemical management and the circular economy.

Climate change grabs the headlines these days but circular economy doesn’t seem to be a priority for governments. A new Commission strategy for 2050 includes it under its most ambitious scenario but what needs to change for it to really sit high on the agenda?

The European Commission has already done a lot in this regard, particularly in the long run, when it could be as important as climate change. In the end, we basically need to all change the way we actually act.

So it’s very important that we collect and recycle waste, correctly. Everything needs to be recycled to its maximum extent, which will ultimately support our economy, because it’s a win-win. We have a lot to gain here, as Europe, in terms of a non-toxic environment but also being competitive. We can even collect things from parts of the world that have not taken the step to put a priority on this.

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Is technology a barrier here? Or is it more about a behavioural change?

We have the technology. Part of the solution is making sure we return our small electronics, but I think there’s more to it than that. Collection points have to be industry-orientated, so we can strip out things like precious metals, nickel, copper etc.

But we shouldn’t just be focusing on chemicals, the same is true of plastics, which is even more of a problem than metals. Just think about the pollution. We used to talk about metal pollution, like the situation in the Baltic Sea years ago, but now it’s plastic. They have to be recycled, much more so than the low percentages that are currently the state-of-play. The ‘throwaway attitude’ that we have in society has to change.

Will industry sit down, clarify and say what their problems are at the moment? Or are they afraid of losing their competitive edge too much?

I think in the precious metals industry, they get it, as there aren’t so many of them. But in plastics, there are thousands of players; it’s much more difficult for them to organise a comprehensive strategy that says the industry can self-regulate.

I believe a lot in self-regulation but it’s under-developed. It can replace real regulation, which is so difficult these days to get through the decision-making process. We’re looking at waiting times of decades sometimes. I think industry can take it as a moral obligation to try to do this where possible.

You were at ECHA for some years. Can regulatory frameworks keep up with pace of innovation we’re seeing in things like the mobility sector? Or do we need to go back to basics and have a clear-out?

In Europe, I think we could benefit from some going back to the drawing board and integrating a lot more legislation. There’s over 50 pieces that try to regulate chemicals. That’s far too complex, far too many authorities vying with each other, either within member states or at EU level.

They all do complementary things and could work more efficiently together. There needs to be the courage to have a rethink of the system. It’s like with climate change, you need the right motivation for policymakers to make it a priority.

Europe has the most modern chemicals legislation in the world but it’s only modern in the way it is implemented. It still dates back to 2006, so there needs to be the courage to think about how it can be improved, make it more coherent with other policies, like circular economy. 

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