More effort needed to meet Europe’s ambition for zero pollution chemicals

Europe has a long way to go to meet the objectives of its chemical legislation, particularly the Green Deal, said Bjorn Hansen, executive director of the European Chemicals Agency [ECHA]

More needs to be done by legislators and industry to reach Europe’s ambition of safe and sustainable chemicals, laid out in the chemicals strategy in October, according to the head of the European Chemical Agency (ECHA).

“The goalposts are changing with the chemical strategy and changing goalposts mean that we have to get better,” Bjorn Hansen, executive director of the agency, told EURACTIV.

The European Chemical Agency, which runs Europe’s chemical database, REACH, released its five-year report on the EU’s chemicals legislation on Tuesday (1 June).

According to the report, the REACH database and classification, labelling and packaging legislation have advanced worker and consumer health and environmental protection as well as promoted innovation and competitiveness in the EU market.

REACH has also made the industry mindful of their substances and the negative and positive these have on the environment and health, according to Hansen, although he added that improvements are still needed.

More progress needed

The report also found that work still needs to be done to reach the goals set down for REACH when it was adopted in 2006. That includes improving links between the legislation governing chemicals and companies improving the information they provide.

Industry needs to become more compliant and EU countries need more resourcing to trace chemicals, and enforce legislation, said Hansen.

“There’s still a lot to be done, even though it’s better. We have a long way to go to meet the objectives of REACH, and in particular, to meet the added objectives that are embedded in the Green Deal,” he said, also warning that the agency has seen no additional resources to meet the increased ambition.

To gain access to the European market, companies need to submit data on their chemicals. Harmful substances are only allowed if there is a public need for them and if there is no alternative available.

However, the report highlights “significant discrepancies” between the data provided on the risks of chemicals in the registration process and what is provided to public consultations when authorities consider specific risk management for the chemical.

There are also concerns from the industry and from the European Chemicals Agency around compliance. One fifth of products checked by EU countries are in breach of restriction obligations, most of these from outside Europe, according to the report.

This will become an increasing problem as Europe pushes forward with its ambition for safe and sustainable chemicals, said Hansen.

“[Europe’s ambition] is creating a bigger distance to the rest of the world. And the bigger the distance to the rest of the world, the more we need to enforce our borders,” he explained.

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Industry fears allayed

When REACH was first launched in the early 2000s, it marked a huge leap in chemicals safety. But it was met by fear from industry, particularly over whether it would impact their competitiveness.

“Fears are always there, in particular from business, who need stability and certainty. My conclusion is that the fears were higher than what was realised. I think industry coped very, very well with REACH,” said Hansen.

Since its launch, REACH has slowly been registering chemicals and now has data on 23,000 of the most-used chemicals in Europe. In 2020 alone, the agency proposed restrictions that covered 100,000 tonnes of chemicals emitted into the environment each year.

The final milestone came in 2018 when chemicals in the last category, which happened to be the most commercially sensitive, were submitted.

Despite industry concerns, Hansen said companies were compliant and put in the extra hours to do the work.

“If you quantify benefits and quantify costs, then where we are able to do the comparison, it ends up delivering more benefits than costs,” he said, adding some indications suggest REACH has benefited competitiveness.

A lesson for green policy

In many ways, REACH is the trailblazer for enforcing environmental policy, introducing environmental protection decades before the Green Deal was conceived.

“It shows that you can actually have an EU programme, which involves tens of thousands of companies to deliver complex information to a central place and they do, they did,” said Hansen.

Asked how lessons from REACH could be applied to other sectors, he said that key aspects were putting the burden of proof on the industry, having an agency deal with the technical details and creating an information base, which is the same for all products on the market.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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