Chemicals are omnipresent in our everyday life and play a fundamental role as building blocks in technologies, materials and products. However, chemicals with hazardous components can also cause damage to human and animal health and the environment. Further, pollution resulting from chemicals also contributes to climate change, the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity.

Against this background, on 14 October the European Commission adopted the EU chemicals strategy for sustainability towards a toxic-free environment. The strategy is the first step towards the zero-emissions target for a pollution-free environment announced in the European Green Deal on 11 December 2019 in order to build a new long-term vision for the EU’s chemical policy.

The strategy aims to promote innovative solutions for safe and sustainable chemicals and increases the protection of people and the environment from hazardous chemicals. It also aims to ensure that all chemicals used become safer and more sustainable. Simply speaking: The environmental footprint of chemicals should be minimized throughout their life cycle. Therefore, the strategy contains concrete measures for this purpose. It also provides for various innovation and investment measures to support the chemical industry in its implementation.

Most relevant effects for the chemicals industry

The strategy and its action plan contain a comprehensive set of policy actions. Key elements include:

  • Banning the most harmful chemicals in consumer products and allowing their use only where “essential for society”, such as endocrine disruptors and chemicals that affect the immune system and the respiratory system;
  • inclusion of polymers in the REACH registration; whereby CEFIC is advocating a tailored approach to accommodate the complex characteristics of polymers;
  • considering the effect of chemical mixtures (cocktail effect) when assessing risks from chemicals (which would affect many market players such as manufacturers of masterbatches, paints and coatings and adhesives);
  • phasing out the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which has been under debate for many years, in the EU, unless their use is “essential for society”;
  • establishing a simpler “one substance one assessment” process for the risk and hazard assessment of chemicals. It aims to coordinate the assessment of chemicals across legislation, sectors and authorities;
  • commitment by the European Commission to ensure financial support for the commercialization and uptake of safe and sustainable chemicals via EU funding and investment instruments (as well as public-private partnerships); and
  • supporting the European chemicals industry in its transition to the production of substances manufactured according to the principle of “safe-and-sustainable-by-design”. “Safe-and-sustainable-by-design” means avoiding harmful chemicals in the life cycle of substances, materials and processes. Support is intended to be provided through financing, investments and marketing support.

In order to reach these aims, in addition to the planned adaptation of the REACH and CLP regulations, changes in other relevant EU legislation (e.g. Toy Safety Directive, Cosmetic Products Regulation, General Product Safety Directive and the Food Contact Materials Regulation) are also intended.

Expected timeline

According to the Annex of the corresponding strategy an action plan is presented, which describes the intended next steps and their indicative timing. Thereafter, the Commission aims to introduce all of the legal measures within a timeframe between 2021 and 2024. However, we expect that it will take the rest of the decade to implement the new EU rules at national level. The next step will be the establishment by the European Commission of a high-level roundtable with representatives from the industry, science and the civil society to realise the strategy’s objectives in dialogue with the stakeholders concerned. The focus shall be on how to make the chemicals legislation more efficient and effective and how to boost the development and uptake of innovative safe and sustainable chemicals.

How are companies affected?

The strategy itself contains measures and incentives to promote industrial innovation and production – in particular with regard to the market introduction of new chemicals and the general greening of production processes in chemical companies.

Further, stronger regulation also means increased costs for the companies concerned in order to comply with the new regulatory framework.

However, the industry is also expected to become more dynamic as new companies will probably emerge to promote sustainable chemical production – in particular with regard to the envisaged EU funding.

Thus, we recommend to deal with the planned bans on substances and further regulation in detail and to actively follow the upcoming legislative process in order to be up to date and to orientate business decisions accordingly at an early stage.

With the currently existing regulations at EU level, one of the most strict regulatory frameworks for chemicals already exists. The strategy now announced will introduce a chemical reform since the implementation of REACH and is intended to tighten the existing legal framework from a sustainability perspective. Therefore, companies in the chemical sector should actively monitor the dynamics of the upcoming legislative process in order to align appropriate business decisions at an early stage.

The strategy paper and accompanying Commission materials, can be found here.

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