The essence of essentiality: Get the basics right on ‘Essential Uses’

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Stakeholder Opinion

Stainless steel is a 'hazardous' substance that could be deemed 'non-essential' under current plans. [Photo: Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Chemicals management: What’s at stake.

The European Commission’s new chemicals plan intends to ban any substances deemed hazardous and non-essential. Violaine Verougstraete explains why a different approach to this is needed.

Violaine Verougstraete is chemicals management director at Eurometaux.

Published in October of this year, the Commission’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability proposes a by-default ban on all non-essential uses of products used by consumers or professionals, if they contain a substance that falls under a new definition of ‘most harmful chemicals’.

The proposed ban would apply to such chemicals regardless of whether they pose an actual risk to consumers, professionals or the environment. We propose instead a targeted application of the essential use concept that accounts for both the benefits and risks of substances and their uses.

Measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19 have shown how narrow definitions of ‘essential’ products or sectors are and how society feels deprived when non-essential, but beneficial goods or services are no longer available.

The approach proposed in the framework of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability would impact consumers’ choices as well as workers and companies producing articles deemed to be ‘only’ beneficial or useful.

Societal acceptance of limitations to what is truly essential (and acceptance of the impact that such strict regulation has on the economy) is high when facing the COVID-19 threat. But would it be high when consumers will no longer have the right to purchase safe products, just because they contain a hazardous substance?

The notion of essential uses already exists in international law and has a very narrow definition and application. Its introduction in the Montreal Protocol has successfully enabled the minimisation of the usage of ozone-depleting gases.

The approach to essential uses foreseen in the EU Chemical Strategy is, however, fundamentally different. Indeed, the Montreal Protocol targeted a specific category of substances in order to address a specific and pressing environmental need.

The Strategy proposes to apply this concept, which has so far been applied in a targeted fashion, in a sweeping manner and would have unintended consequences.

All materials contain chemicals and, according to the Commission’s plans, many of them will be considered ‘most harmful’. Many of those substances are safely used in the materials which make everyday products.

One such example is the most sustainable stainless steels, the safety of which has been demonstrated even for medical applications.

Despite their many benefits in terms of functionality, sustainability, durability and recyclability, this material would henceforth only be permitted for ‘essential’ consumer and professional uses, leading to possibly regrettable substitution by less sustainable and durable materials.

To note the impact, one just has to look at one’s kitchen and consider which useful tools made out of stainless steel would not be considered as essential and thus no longer be available. Such an approach would reduce consumer choice and impact many value chains while failing to address a risk.

Limiting the number of applications of certain substances could also put at risk certain strategic economic value chains in the European Union. Extracting metals or producing substances only for limited uses may not make economic sense.

Contrary to the objectives of the Chemicals Strategy and the EU Industrial Strategy, what is currently produced by European industry might then need to be imported from third countries, which possibly have lower environmental standards.

This would result in Europe being dependent on others for essential substances and in people losing jobs.

Furthermore, the use of chemicals is necessary for numerous innovations such as enabling society’s digitalisation, the transition to the circular economy and decarbonisation. However, applying a hazard-based toxic-free hierarchy, even with a derogation for essential uses, creates regulatory uncertainty that does not encourage innovation.

On the contrary, ensuring the sustainable use of chemicals from production to their disposal and recycling would maximise the benefits for society and the environment. Metals can be recycled safely an unlimited number of times with exposure controlled in high-quality recycling operations.

They enable the transition to a circular economy and fit with industrial policies aiming at reducing Europe’s dependence on imported primary materials and lowering carbon footprint. A full life cycle approach to the sustainable use of chemicals would enable the realisation of such important contributions to the objectives of the EU Green Deal.

This would meet the overall goal of protecting citizens. It would also allow society to continue to benefit from manufacturing and using products which are proven to be safe.

Towards a targeted approach.

The generic application of the essential use concept presents a large number of disadvantages. However, that is not to say that the concept could not play a useful role in EU chemicals legislation.

The essential use concept could be applied to specific and well-defined groups of substances if the actual risk of their continued use is determined to be unacceptable and unmanageable.

Looking beyond how to use the essential use concept in chemicals legislation, we believe that we need to get together and reflect between authorities and stakeholders on what could define ‘sustainable uses’.

Criteria could cover elements like technical performance during the use-phase, economic feasibility, hazard and risk control throughout the life-cycle, effective material use, as well as climate performance over the life-cycle.

This could contribute to the better integration of chemicals management policy with other policy objectives of the Green Deal.

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