The long-awaited Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is out. The Strategy is well placed to be one of the hottest files in the EU sustainability debate, as demonstrated by delays in the publication and bureaucratic battles – Brussels bubble geeks will know all about the ‘exchange of views’ between the Commission’s internal market and health policy directorates VS the environment directorate.

Ilaria Graceffa
Consultant

Stemming from the Green Deal, the CSS aims to protect citizens and the environment against hazardous chemicals and encourage safer alternatives. It will work as a non-binding framework, paving the way for more than 50 actions, between new legislation and policy initiatives as well as the revision of existing tools, as listed in the Annex to the Strategy. It focuses on five priorities, including innovation for safe and sustainable EU chemicals; stronger legislation; simplifying and consolidating the legal framework; promoting a comprehensive knowledge base on chemicals; and setting the example for a global sound management of chemicals.

We looked at the key points addressed by the Strategy and listed the top 10 items to keep an eye on.

1. Toxic-free hierarchy

The hierarchy concept is already used to guide waste policy and has now made its way into the chemicals field, with the “toxic-free hierarchy” – one of the major innovations brought by the CSS. The hierarchy will prioritise the design of safe and sustainable chemicals over the current approach of minimising exposure to dangerous chemicals. In other words, producers are encouraged from the first stage of the value chain to design and put on the market chemicals which are considered safe and sustainable. If this is not feasible, exposure to substances identified as “of concern” must be minimised and their use and presence tracked. In extremis, substances of concern ending up in waste or secondary raw materials must be eliminated through safe and clean recycling.  

2. Safe and sustainable-by-design

To implement the toxic-free hierarchy, the European Commission will bring some clarity by developing EU safe and sustainable-by-design criteria for chemicals in 2022, preceded in 2021 by Key Performance Indicators to measure the industrial transition towards the production of safe and sustainable chemicals. Currently, the CSS just defines safe and sustainable-by-design as ‘a pre-market approach to chemicals that focuses on providing a function (or service), while avoiding volumes and chemical properties that may be harmful to human health or the environment, in particular groups of chemicals likely to be (eco) toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative or mobile.’

3. Criteria to define ‘essential use’

The concept of ‘essential use’ is one of the fils rouges guiding decision-making in chemicals in the coming years. This concept ensures that the most harmful chemicals are only allowed if their use is necessary for health, safety or is critical for the functioning of society and if there are no alternatives that are acceptable from an environmental and health standpoint. While this notion has already been used in other international tools and as general guiding principle under REACH, for the first time policy-makers will codify the idea of ‘essential use’ into EU policy, and taking into account the definition of the Montreal Protocol. These criteria will guide the application of essential uses in all relevant EU legislation for both generic and specific risk assessments. This will be the case for endocrine disruptors, to be banned in consumer products as soon as they are identified, allowing their use only where it is proven to be essential for society.

4. Grouping approach

In an effort to simplify and speed up regulatory processes, thegrouping approach seems to be the best candidate to address chemicals with similar hazards, risks or functions. Indeed, this approach would make it easier to restrict a substance based on similar properties, requiring less in-depth assessment and fewer opportunities for industry to contribute to assessment process. However, the risk is that fundamental differences in the properties and related behaviours that exist across the very different chemicals (think about the PFAS group with more than 4,000 substances) might not be taken into account, leading to broader restrictions of chemicals which are actually key to address societal needs.

5. Endocrine disruptors

Dated 1999, the EU policy framework for endocrine disrupting chemicals has been considered as one of the most outdated in the EU. Among other measures, the CSS aims to address the risk related to these substances, introducing a legally-binding hazard identification of endocrine disruptors, which will apply across all legislation and based on the definition of the World Health Organisation. A safer and preventive approach to address endocrine disruptors will be also reflected in the revision and update of existing legislation, such as Food Contact Materials Regulation, Cosmetic Products Regulation, and Toy Safety Directive, to name a few. 

6. PFAS

Discussions around the hotly debated PFAS group are expected to continue. Using ambiguous wording, the Commission committed to ban all PFAS as a group in fire-fighting foams as well as in other uses, allowing their use only where they are essential for society. Without mentioning which sector or products will be affected by such a restriction, it appears clear that the Commission is determined to address persistent chemicals, notably address PFAS with a group approach, and under a wide range of relevant legislations (e.g. water, sustainable products, food, industrial emissions, and waste). This is clearly echoed in the Annex Action Plan, with several initiatives aimed to address PFAS and the promotion of funds to develop suitable alternatives.

7. Strong link with the Circular Economy and Sustainable Product Policy

The new Circular Economy Action plan promotes – among others – the idea to address all the phases of the value chain, encouraging safe-by-design chemicals, materials and products, in order to achieve a truly circular economy. To this end, the European Commission committed to present several initiatives such as the Sustainable Product Policy framework, the Sustainable Consumers initiative and the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. It appears clear therefore that chemical policy is no longer meant to be an isolated issue, but it rather becomes a fundamental link in the whole sustainability chain, requiring a paradigm shift for all stakeholders, in all sectors and at all stages, from extraction to use, and recovery.

8. Extension of the generic approach to risk management

The CSS will also lead to a shift in the generic approach to risk management, which will be extended to ensure that consumer products (e.g. food contact materials, toys, childcare articles, cosmetics, detergents, furniture and textiles) do not contain chemicals that cause cancers, gene mutations, affect the reproductive or the endocrine system, or are persistent and bioaccumulative. In this spirit, the Commission will launch a comprehensive impact assessment to define the modalities and timing for extending the same generic approach, with regard to consumer products, to further harmful chemicals. But as DG SANTE has already warned, couldn’t this risk to make the whole decision-making process more complex?

9. Key role of new technologies  

Digital technologies – such as the internet of things, big data, artificial intelligence, smart sensors and robotics – will play an important role in greening chemicals manufacturing processes. IT tools will also ensure the availability of information on chemical content and safe use, by introducing information requirements in the context of the Sustainable Product Policy Initiative and tracking the presence of substances of concern throughout the life cycle of materials and products. An example will be the product passports currently under discussion as well as the SCIP database expected in January 2021.

10. “One substance, one assessment”

In order to avoid inconsistencies, slow procedures, inefficient use of resources and unnecessary burdens, the Commission will introduce the “one-substance-one-assessment” principle. In simpler words, coordination tools and principles will be introduced among EU regulators.

At a first sight, it seems clear that the CSS sets the path for an ambitious chemicals policy for the future, in line with the green political landscape. Almost all sectors will be impacted by the CSS. Action upstream will require that products are safe and sustainable-by-design. Action downstream will aim to achieve non-toxic material cycles, that increase safety and trust in recycled materials and products. This could lead to additional information to be provided by companies on the chemical content of their products; more stringent requirements on chemicals in recycled materials (fewer derogations); closer monitoring of chemicals in waste streams. It remains to be seen how this precautionary approach will respond to the need for innovation and technologies necessary to achieve the European Green Deal objectives, while also ensuring a level playing field and providing a framework which promotes innovation and does not frustrate industry efforts.