The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability

The EU Commission recently announced its “Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. This new policy maps out the European Union’s plans to reshape the European chemicals industry over the next number of years. It is part of the EU’s comprehensive “Green Deal”, an action programme released in December 2019 aiming to transform the EU’s economy into a climate-neutral, resource-efficient, and competitive economy.

The new Chemicals Strategy does not impose any binding legal requirements and it does not have any immediate effect on the European chemicals sector. A more detailed roadmap can be expected in 2021, with actual proposals to be made between 2021 and 2024. New regulations are likely to enter into force from 2025 (see the action plan here).  Given that the Chemicals Strategy sets out the topics that will be high on the EU Commission’s agenda over the next number of years, a close eye should be kept on developments in this context. Broadly speaking, the Chemicals Strategy aims to “green up” the chemicals industry in two ways:

  • Regulatory measures: By banning or minimising the use of certain harmful chemicals.
  • Non-regulatory incentives: By promoting industrial innovation.

Regulatory measures

The Chemicals Strategy primarily proposes to ban a number of chemicals considered harmful. Banned chemicals are not to be used in consumer products (e.g. toys, childcare articles, cosmetics, detergents, food contact material, furniture and textiles) anymore. While there is no specific list of chemicals yet, the European Commission will focus on the following groups of chemicals:

  • Endocrine disruptors, e.g. chemicals that can interfere with the hormonal system and cause a variety of diseases, e.g. cancer (see the EU Commission’s Staff Working Document on the Fitness Check on endocrine disruptors here),
  • PFAs, better known as “forever chemicals”, which are resistant to environmental degradation and are also suspected to be carcinogenic (see the EU Commission’s Staff Working Document on PFA bans here),
  • CMRs (carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reprotoxic substances),
  • PBTs/vPvBs (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances/very persistent and very bioaccumulative substances),
  • Immunotoxicants, neurotoxicants, substances toxic to specific organs and respiratory sensitisers.

Some of these substances are already SVHC candidates (substances of very high concern), requiring special authorisation for their production or use. The Chemicals Strategy now goes one step further by aiming at a complete ban of these chemicals, at least when it comes to their use in consumer products. Outside of the consumer products area some of these chemicals may still see widespread use, albeit with a growing awareness for their potential harmfulness.

A roadmap for an amendment of the REACH Regulation, which will very likely include a more specific list of chemicals subject to a ban or tighter restrictions, is announced for 2021. Actual proposals for changes in REACH and related legislation are scheduled for 2021 to 2024, with PFAs potentially to be banned as early as 2025.

Additionally, the Commission wants to address specific areas of chemicals regulation where it believes to have spotted shortcomings in the current legislation, including (unintentional) mixtures of chemicals, tightening the rules for material cycles, and minimising chemical pollution. Again, the Chemicals Strategy does not yet provide specific details and only envisages relevant amendments to core chemical regulations such as the REACH and CLP Regulations.

In terms of methodology, the EU Commission is seeking to replace the predominant case-by-case analysis with a generic “one substance, one assessment” approach, aiming for better and faster decisions on (harmful) chemicals. The change in assessment methods is set to be accompanied by improvements in access to information and the level of transparency – not only for consumers, but also for authorities – by strengthening the “no data, no market” principle.

Non-regulatory measures

The Chemicals Strategy also aims to promote industrial innovation to develop safe and sustainable-by-design products and “green” business models. This will be supported by EU funding, direct investments, and Public Private Partnerships. Again, the Chemicals Strategy remains vague regarding specific funding opportunities and only mentions existing measures such as

What should I be thinking about or doing now?

There is no need for immediate action. The Chemicals Strategy does not impose any binding legal requirements and it does not have any immediate effect on any chemicals or the way they are currently used.  However, some steps worth considering already include:

  • Manufacturers of chemicals should assess whether some of their products may be at risk of being taken off the market in the foreseeable future. At the same time, suggested EU funding may provide opportunities for state-funded research and development.
  • Downstream users of chemicals should assess whether they may be at risk of losing important ingredients for their products and seek out substitutes.
  • All stakeholders should continue to stay involved in the development of the Chemicals Strategy and make use of the public consultations, impact assessments, and roundtables that the European Commission has announced for 2021.