The impending Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is fundamental to the EU’s ambition of addressing the disperse sources of pollution. It looks to tackle the risks related to dangerous chemicals and to promote sustainable alternatives. Based on the leaked version from July, the replacement of harmful substances with safer substitutes forms part of one of the main aims for implementing the strategy under the priority of enforcing the sustainability of European chemicals production.
Substitution of hazardous substances can be expected to receive a boost from the safer-by-design approach. This approach considers the life-cycle of a chemical from design to production, and from process to product. The intention is to reduce as far as possible the environmental and human health impacts. In following this approach, the objectives of the Circular Economy Action Plan would be complemented by ensuring toxic substances do not end up in waste streams marked for recycling and reuse.
There are a number of examples within the Fit for REACH project of companies successfully managing to replace dangerous chemicals for safer substitutes. Yet, the costs and resources necessary to invest in the required infrastructure and to up-skill workers is recognized as a standard barrier to finding or onboarding an alternative substance. A recurring concern throughout the project surrounded the limitations to human and financial capital that would support substitution processes.
It can be anticipated that the Commission will put forth several initiatives, however, to facilitate a transition including a greater emphasis through existing mechanisms, such as Horizon Europe, to provide financial support in the development of safer- and sustainable-by-design chemicals. Additionally, they are expected to propose setting sustainable-by-design criteria, as well as adding chemical related requirements in the upcoming sustainable product legislative initiative.
Although difficult to predict the exact criterion, presumably these initiatives will also seek to avoid regrettable substitution. The Commission has been shifting towards grouping of substances as part of chemicals risk management – most notably the grouping of PFAS for the thresholds presented in the Water Framework Directive. The chemicals strategy, in the same way, will be expected to commit to a future method of evaluating groups of chemicals that display similar hazard, risk or function.
In practice, companies along the supply-chain would need to take stock of the materials used in their products and to proactively find alternatives. The grouping approach ultimately aims to bring greater efficiency to the Authorisation and Restriction procedures, which have thus far relied on a substance-by-substance approach. This way of risk assessment evaluation has been criticized for being both resource-intensive, as well as not always the most effective for real substitution.
While the Chemicals Strategy has yet to be published, it would be fair to prepare for changes that will have an impact on the current chemicals regulatory machinations. Any proposal or initiative will leave enough room for stakeholders to make the needed adjustments, but commencing the shift towards substitution sooner could prevent possible time constraints in doing so later.