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Freshfields Sustainability

| 4 minutes read

The EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability – The story so far

The EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability 

Almost four years have passed since the European Commission published its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability as part of the “Green Deal”. With European Parliament elections just around the corner, it is time to assess the story so far and what is yet to come. 

The story so far

Revision of REACH Regulation delayed indefinitely

The Commission has already started work on a comprehensive overhaul of the EU’s REACH Regulation, with ambitious plans to revise registration requirements for substances, reform the authorisation and restriction process, and to simplify communication along the supply chain. A draft proposal to revise REACH was expected for the end of 2023. However, due to political pressure from business-friendly political groups and a generally struggling chemical industry, the proposal has been blocked from publication. It is unclear if the proposal will see the light of the day under the next Commission mandate. 

Nevertheless, less complex proposals also linked to REACH and published on 7 December 2023 remain on the table and are being scrutinised by the European Parliament and Council: 

Updated CLP Regulation expected to enter into force in Autumn 2024

Significant progress has been made on the revision of the Classification Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation since the Commission presented its proposal on 19 December 2022, with the European Parliament endorsing the provisional agreement reached between the Parliament and Council on 23 April 2024. The agreement introduces new classification rules for more than one constituent substances (MOCS) and new hazard classes for endocrine disruptors, PBT, vPvB, PMT and vPvM, whilst also improving hazard communication labels and addressing issues such as mandatory supplier rules. The revised CLP Regulation is expected to enter into force in autumn of this year, with a transitional period of at least 18 months.

Proposal to ban PFAS in the EU not due before the end of 2026

In February 2023, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a proposal to generally restrict the use of PFAS (covering approximately 10,000 substances) in the EU. The proposal, one of the broadest in the EU’s history, has seen significant pushback. A public consultation in 2023 generated more than 5,600 responses, many of which expressed concern that the proposal will restrict the use of PFAS in critical applications (e.g. semiconductors and solar PV). The five countries that submitted the restriction dossier (Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway) are now reassessing. ECHA’s work is therefore delayed, and it is unlikely that ECHA will submit its updated restriction proposal to the Commission before the end of 2026. Any restriction may not be in force until 2029 at the earliest. 

Microplastics restricted

In autumn 2023, the Commission restricted the use of microplastics intentionally added to products, such as loose glitter or microbeads. The first restrictions are already in place, others will follow once transitional periods have expired.

The Commission also presented a proposal to better regulate the unintentional release of plastic pellets in October 2023. Originally intended to target microplastics unintentionally released from products like tyres and textiles, political pressure resulted in the proposal being watered down to only focus on pellets used as feedstock in plastic product manufacturing. The European Parliament’s position was published in April 2024. 

Taxonomy Regulation encourages phase-out of hazardous chemicals

The EU Taxonomy Regulation establishes a transparent classification system for certain listed economic activities by defining requirements for what may be regarded as “sustainable”. Companies wishing to benefit from aligning their activities with the EU Taxonomy Regulation must show that the listed economic activity does not use hazardous chemicals at all or only where there is no “suitable alternative”. The range of hazardous chemicals to be avoided is very broad and includes not only established “substances of very high concern” (SVHC) but also SVHC candidates and a large number of substances falling within a variety of CLP Classification categories. In 2023, the Commission tightened the requirements, increasing compliance requirements for companies. 

CSRD requires comprehensive disclosure of substances of concern

The EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires companies to report on a variety of sustainability-related metrics. Under the “Pollution” reporting standard (ESRS E2) companies are asked to disclose their production, use and/or distribution and commercialisation not just of SVHCs but also of substances of concern, a much larger group of chemicals that fall into certain CLP hazard classes or categories, potentially running into hundreds of chemicals a company would need to track and report. In addition, companies are asked to describe in their pollution policies plans to substitute or minimise the use of substances of concern and for the phasing out of SVHCs, especially if used for non-essential societal uses (see below) or consumer products. While the CSRD does not require companies to actually phase out the use of hazardous chemicals, the increased transparency requirements can be expected to place a company’s (unjustified) use of such substances under greater scrutiny in the future. 

Non-binding proposal to define “essential use” published in April 2024

In April 2024 the Commission published a set of criteria to define what constitutes “essential uses” for harmful chemicals. This non-legislative communication outlines what would be required to assess whether there is a justification for the use of a hazardous substance. Under the proposal, their use would only be considered essential (for society as a whole, not necessarily for the specific user) if both of the following criteria are met:

  • use of the substance is necessary for health or safety or is critical for the functioning of society
  • there are no acceptable alternatives.

By introducing this concept, the Commission hopes that the use of hazardous substances in the EU will be phased out even faster. However, as the proposal is non-binding, it would first have to be introduced into the various chemical regulations dealing with hazardous substances, such as REACH. 

What’s next?

The Commission has made good progress in its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability so far, but it is clear that implementation of all policy elements could extend beyond 2024 into the late 2020s. The key challenge for the coming years will be to balance the ambitious goals under the Green Deal with the commercial interests of the EU’s chemical industry, which is still absorbing the impact of weak demand coupled with high energy and feedstock prices, reducing its capacity to meet additional regulatory requirements. With the upcoming EU elections, it remains to be seen what will be top of the agenda for the next Commission and Parliament and which sustainable chemicals initiatives will be prioritised. 


chemicals, environment, europe, financial institutions, life sciences, regulatory