Working towards a common goal on risk regulation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.

If we all agree on the same end goal when it comes to regulating risk, we need to get better at working together, writes Patrick Thomas. Science should always be the cornerstone of risk assessment, but industry needs to make more of an effort to listen to concerns of different stakeholders.

Patrick Thomas is president of PlasticsEurope, the Association of Plastics Producers in Europe.

The well-known proverb goes that “one’s man’s meat, is another man’s poison”. This is meant to remind us that on subjective matters of taste and opinion there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer.  It is not an expression typically applied to the interpretation of objective scientific evidence.

Yet, in an EU policy context, it could be easily translated as “one man’s science, is another man’s unacceptable uncertainty”.

Finding the best way to regulate risk and uncertainty is not a new challenge. With the advent of all new technologies policy makers have had to balance the uncertainties inherent with any innovation with the potential benefits to society.

Yet somehow the issue seems more topical than ever in Europe. Developments such as the launch of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, on-going discussions around chemicals regulation and European Environment Agency communications on the application of the precautionary principle are contributing to an increasingly vocal debate on risk assessment as policy making tool.

This debate is often simplified to a rational profit-driven industry arguing for a “science-based approach” against emotional activists calling for a broader application of the precautionary principle. Then somewhere in the middle you have policy-makers trying to make sense of it all for a general public that is confused and concerned by the mixed messages it is receiving.

This caricature is both inaccurate and unhelpful. The positions of industry, civil society, decision-makers and the scientific community are all ultimately driven by the same question – will a given decision bring overall value to society? So, if we all agree on the same end goal, we need to get better at working together towards a common understanding on how to get there.

I represent an industry that has been integral to many of the most important innovations of the last century. Precisely because of these qualities, plastics are also subject to robust risk regulation. As an industry, we welcome this scrutiny and regularly go beyond existing regulation to ensure that our materials are used in a way that does not pose a risk to human health and that products that go out on the market are safe as well as useful.

Safety is at the heart of everything we do. So, like other sectors we are concerned by the ever greater pressure on policy makers in Europe to impose bans or restrictions despite a lack of scientific evidence of risk.

We are of course concerned about what this trend means for our business in economic terms but also more broadly about its impact on the future of innovation and technological development in Europe. As an industry made up of people, we are also concerned about the impact this has on public perceptions about plastics positive contribution to society.

We firmly believe that scientific evidence should always be the cornerstone of risk assessment. However, we need to acknowledge that there are often additional considerations at play, and simply dismissing them as unscientific does not help anybody.

The plastics industry recognises that we need to get better at listening to the concerns of different stakeholders about our products, and demonstrate how we are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to safety.

We also need to accept that as economic operators there will always be questions about commercial motivations and potential conflicts of interests, and we need to address these if we want to be accepted as a credible partner in risk and policy making discussions. 

That is why the plastics industry welcomes the recent suggestion by the EU Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Anne Glover, to establish a standard ethics code for business to apply to research. PlasticsEurope is ready to play a role in such an initiative and would welcome the opportunity to work with others in developing it.

We believe that this would be a small but important step to building trust and facilitating a more constructive dialogue with other stakeholders. That way we can work together on an approach to risk regulation that best addresses the needs of European consumers.  

To this end, we are organising a major policy summit on the Safety of Plastics in Brussels later this year, and we call on all key players who have a vested interest in consumer safety and are open to putting science at the heart of policy-making to join us in working towards our common objective.

PlasticsEurope will be holding a policy summit on the safety of plastics in Brussels on 5-6 November 2013.      

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