Chemistry’s waste problem

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

The chemical industry "should explore new models of collaboration with its customers so they better understand what they have in their products, moving beyond just selling a product to providing after-service," Tom Parker writes. [SvedOliver / Shutterstock]

Europe’s chemical industry needs to embrace circular thinking and urgently address concerns about substances getting into the environment or risk being crushed by regulators, writes Tom Parker.

Tom Parker is Chairman of Cambre Associates, a consultancy, and President of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium.

Against a growing tide of consumer concern and the backdrop of an emerging EU Circular Economy Agenda, Dow CEO Jim Fitterling commented in March 2019 that there could be no denial of the plastic waste problem. In doing so, he put his finger on the phase of the chemical lifecycle that will be the single greatest challenge in the years ahead, not just for the plastic industry but for the chemical industry at large.

That the production of chemicals has an important environmental footprint there is no doubt. It must be recognised, however, that the industry is working harder than ever to reduce this and making a critical contribution in supporting the technologies we need, such as solar energy, wind turbines, batteries and insulation materials, to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and be climate neutral by 2050.

These are the same technologies that have been recognised as strategic sectors for investment in the EU’s recovery plan and that will make EU industry competitive worldwide.

Unfortunately, as we have seen with the controversy around microplastics, when it comes to waste unless the industry steps up its game the true “value” of chemistry will be lost on European policymakers and more importantly society at large. Attention will not be given to the enabling power and saving potential of chemistry but rather how it is damaging our increasingly vulnerable ecosystems. In response, European policymakers will continue to look to strengthen the regulation of chemicals, increasing their traceability in the articles we use, such as through the SCIP database, including new criteria for evaluation like PMT and Persistence alone, extending scope to cover polymers and include provision for the effect of chemical mixtures under REACH.

Taking into consideration the rising tide of plastic in the environment, recent major pollution events in the Netherlands, Italy… and the growing concern of Europeans in relation to the environment and its impact on our health, you can understand why this is the case.

However, in doing so, there is a real danger that regulators end up using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, adopting excessively blunt regulation of the chemicals that play a critical role today and are also absolutely essential for our carbon-neutral, digital and resilient future.

If you take the example of PFAS, a large family of thousands of synthetic chemicals widely used throughout society but found in the environment that are currently in the eye of a political storm around the world, there is no doubt there is a significant problem that requires urgent regulatory attention. However, if regulators put all PFAS in the same regulatory bucket there is a real danger that not only will they ignore the fundamental differences in the physico-chemical properties and related behaviours that exist across the very different chemicals in the PFAS group but they could also throw the baby out with bath water, restricting both substances that are a problem but also those that contribute to address significant societal needs like pollution abatement, medical implants, personal protective equipment amongst many others.

On a more general but related note, efforts to tighten chemical regulation by extending criteria to cover substances that demonstrate extreme persistence are a double-edged sword. Yes, if these substances are allowed to build up in the environment, there is a theoretical possibility that they could in time reach a threshold that requires attention. On the other hand, the quality of durability that results from a chemical’s ability to persist is what ensures that in extreme conditions wind turbines can operate, sealants can insulate windows, and the mobile technology that we use day to day can function wherever we are in the world.

The balance between persistence and durability needs to be given careful consideration otherwise, cognisant of the precautionary foundation of European chemical policy, there is a very real risk that policy is implemented that undermines our 2050 goals.

32% of chemicals non-compliant with EU rules

A third of chemicals do not comply with European Union rules due to insufficient toxicological data. EURACTIV France’s media partner the Journal de l’environnement reports.

Reflecting on the above, industry needs to look beyond the “value” of chemistry reasoning and must urgently seek to better address concerns about substances getting into the environment in the first place. In production, the requirements of the industrial emissions directive need to be properly implemented and potentially re-enforced, and “in use” industry should accept, for example, stringent threshold levels that address potentially problematic residual chemicals in polymers.

When it comes to end of life, industry however needs a more fundamental change in mindset. Looking well beyond the immediate regulatory challenge e.g. fulfilling the requirements of the SCIP database, industry needs to be prepared to fully embrace circular thinking and the principle of extended producer responsibility, accept that its commitment lies well beyond production and use, and that the fate of their chemicals right down their value chains to end of life is part of their future licence to operate. It should explore new models of collaboration with its customers so they better understand what they have in their products, moving beyond just selling a product to providing after-service, and provide more transparency to policymakers about their product portfolios and their intended applications of use.

With a tightening product policy agenda and pending sustainable product legislation, those sectors of the chemical industry that do not make this step change in thinking, properly coming to terms with the requirements of the new circular paradigm, the implication of policy like the waste hierarchy and including design for the environment considerations as part of product development, will not only find they are under ever greater regulatory pressure but also that their customers have abandoned them for more sustainable alternatives.

Not only are consumers increasingly choosing green but investors are seeing the higher returns of ESG based investments. Industry needs to fully embrace its half of the bargain but with the soon-to-be released Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, EU policymakers must also reflect on the fact that a policy approach that is excessively punitive risks leading us to the wrong sustainability choices and will curtail the chemical innovation needed to enable our sustainable future.

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