This article is part of our special report Sustainable products initiative.
The European Commission will seek to address “the presence of hazardous substances” in a wide range of products as part of its upcoming Sustainable Products Initiative (SPI), despite warnings from industry that it could conflict with the EU’s existing chemicals safety legislation.
The EU executive is expected to present new sustainability rules on 30 March, targeting a wide range of products with the objective of making them more durable, reusable, and recyclable.
As part of this, Brussels wants to “address the presence” of harmful chemicals, the Commission said in a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of the proposal.
The new legislation will look at products such as electronics and ICT equipment, textiles, and furniture, as well as intermediary products such as steel, cement and chemicals, the document said.
This approach builds on the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability released last year, which stated the Commission’s intention to introduce requirements to minimise the presence of hazardous substances in consumer products.
There are currently several product-specific rules to regulate these substances – in toys, batteries, or food contact materials – but the upcoming SPI proposal is expected to extend this to a much broader set of products placed on the EU market.
This is creating jitters among manufacturers and suppliers of raw materials, who are already regulated under the EU’s REACH legislation on chemical safety.
The metals industry, in particular, is nervous about the Commission’s intention to look into the presence of hazardous substances in a product without looking at the consumer’s potential exposure to it.
“We agree that hazardous substances in products need to be assessed to ensure that they do not present risks for consumers or professionals using these articles,” said Mark Mistry, public policy manager at the Nickel Institute.
However, he said, the substances are often sealed inside the product and therefore do not come in contact with consumers.
“Batteries are a good example here: while they do contain hazardous substances, those substances are sealed within the battery and do not present a chemical risk,” he said, illustrating the risk-based approach adopted under the EU’s 2006 REACH regulation.
NGOs, by contrast, maintain that hazard-based approaches – which focus on the intrinsic properties of a substance, and not the exposure to it – offer more protection to consumers.
“A hazard-based approach sends a clear message that products must be toxic-free throughout these life cycles and that certain hazardous properties cannot be present in consumer products,” said Élise Vitali, policy officer for chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO.
“A risk-based approach bets on the impossible, which is to predict that all exposure, throughout these life cycles, would be safe. This presumption is not realistic and not backed up by science,” she added.
Chemicals in batteries
Lithium-ion batteries, commonly found in electronic devices and electric vehicles, contain hazardous substances and have raised safety issues when disposed as waste at their end of life.
But the industry maintains that these batteries are sealed and pose no risk of exposure for consumers under normal circumstances.
“With batteries, one has to focus on measures that ensure that they are produced and recycled in installations … Once you talk about dismantling, and once [batteries] are going into their end-of-life stage, we need to ensure high standards to protect the environment and human health,” Mistry told EURACTIV.
The European Commission’s proposal for a regulation on batteries, presented at the end of 2020, did not address the issue of hazardous substances in detail. However, lawmakers in the European Parliament’s environment committee have attempted to introduce amendments addressing the presence of these chemicals in the batteries regulation.
A cross-industry paper on the revision of the Batteries Regulation released last month expressed concern about these positions and pointed out that there is already legislation in place to address hazardous substances, such as the REACH regulation.
But current legislation has proved insufficient to prevent toxic substances in products, be it for virgin or recycled materials, said Vitali from the EEB.
“Both the chemicals and products legislations need to be adapted. The SPI is a major opportunity for the EU to set horizontal-overarching principles for toxic-free products to protect health and the environment; this needs to be complemented by sectoral measures to adapt the principles to specific product categories,” she said.
But the industry maintains that hazardous substances are already present in several products that do not pose any risk of harmful exposure. In the case of batteries, all recycling operations are done in a controlled environment to minimise any adverse impact, it points out.
“These are not empty promises: we recycle in a controlled environment, and when that happens, there is minimum damage to the environment and human health,” said Kamila Slupek, sustainability director at Eurometaux.
“We do not oppose the idea to substitute chemicals, provided that the judgement is based on risk and not hazard. Moreover, an alternative choice must consider functionality, safety and performance of a product and of course be safer for the environment and for humans,” she added.
Looking for alternatives
The planned Sustainable Products Initiative will also look into measures to increase transparency on the content of hazardous substances in products in their full life cycle, with the intention to gradually find alternatives and possible substitutes for these substances.
Replacing hazardous substances with safer alternatives “may be time-consuming and cost-intensive and may not always pay off in a competitive advantage for innovative companies,” the EEB said in a paper released last year.
EEB’s Vitali said that “the Sustainable Products Initiative is a promising tool on this aspect. It is more likely to promote the substitution of hazardous substances to safer alternatives since it allows the assessment of alternative materials and products by product groups”.
NGOs have long advocated for all EU legislation to include the right to a toxic-free environment. They have also been critical of the REACH Regulation, arguing that it mainly focuses on chemical alternatives to hazardous substances by seeking to replace them with a ‘safer’ chemical.
“The product-group approach would reduce the chances for regrettable substitutions of hazardous chemicals by others of the same category by taking a more general approach. The use of hazardous chemicals is proven not to be essential where other products of the same product category are toxic-free,” Vitali said.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon/Zoran Radosavljevic]