Chemicals Safety Discussed at Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF2019)
The development and challenges of European and global chemicals safety and related legislation were discussed at the 11th Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF 2019), held at Messukeskus Helsinki, Finland, May 23–24, 2019. Short presentations and panel discussions gave 200 international experts from 40 countries the opportunity to exchange on topics such as plastics waste, circular economy, the best possible risk management options to regulate substances of very high concern (SVHC), the grouping of chemical substances, how to avoid regrettable substitution of substances, how to measure the performance of chemical management systems, the quality of data, and access to the data on chemicals. HCF is an independent forum attracting international authorities, politicians, industry leaders, NGOs, academics, journalists, and specialists interested in global chemical safety management.
The European Union enacted the REACH regulation on June 1, 2007, to better protect people and the environment from harmful chemicals. Companies have to register their chemicals and document the corresponding hazards and likely levels of exposure. It is the responsibility of industry to prove whether a substance is safe and to demonstrate how their chemicals can be used safely.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), located in Helsinki, Finland, is the agency of the European Union which manages the technical and administrative aspects of the implementation of REACH. Other legislation they oversee include the Classification, Labeling and Packaging Regulation (CLP; globally harmonized system for classifying and labeling chemicals for workers and consumers in the EU), the Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR), the law on Prior Informed Consent (PIC; sets guidelines for the export and import of hazardous chemicals), and the Waste Framework Directive (addresses the impact of inappropriate waste management on greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and littering).
Figure 1. Bjorn Hansen, Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Helsinki, Finland, and Daniel Calleja, Director General of DG Environment of the European Commission, Brussels, Belgium, during their talks.
Preparing for Circularity
Bjorn Hansen, Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), Helsinki, looked at the EU’s chemicals policy beyond 2020 in the opening lecture. He did so from the perspective of the legislations which have been implemented by ECHA. Being prepared for what might be coming is of particular interest to an implementing agency such as ECHA, he explained, to react as fast as possible to political demands that often occur faster than the agency is able to shift their implementation abilities.
An important current political issue is the circular economy. With over 10 bn EUR spend since 2016, the EU is investing heavily in the circular economy. Daniel Calleja, Director General of the Directorate-General (DG) for Environment of the European Commission, Brussels, Belgium, explained in his lecture that the EU wants to create the most resource efficient system in the world. Besides sustainability reasons, another reason for this ambitious goal of creating a new economic model is the lack of raw materials in Europe.
“The linear economic model where you produce, consume, and throw away is not viable. The trends that we see in the consumption of resources, in the generation of waste, in the pressure we put on the environment make it impossible to continue with the linear economy. If we do so, we would need 1.6 planets”, Daniel Calleja explained. In a circular economy, the consumption is reduced, the generation of waste is reduced, and resources are kept within the economy and are used again and again. European companies can save 600 bn EUR/year and reduce the emissions of CO2 up to 4 %.
Circular economy means to recycle materials a number of times, ideally an infinite number of times. “In chemicals speak a material is a mixture”, Bjorn Hansen explained. ECHA is dealing with mixtures that are imported to or produced in the European market. Therefore, the agency sees itself already in a very good starting point in supporting circularity.
The safety of products produced from recycled materials needs to be ensured. Daniel Calleja mentioned a previous failure, where flame retardants ended up in toys. Information about which chemicals are used where in the system becomes more and more important. “A database has to be set up to track the chemicals. Circularity can only work when we avoid using substances of very high concern (SVHC) to make sure they do not come back into our products via recycling.”
Since 2013, ECHA has been screening the full REACH/CLP substance database to identify substances of concern and is working to phase out SVHCs. Currently, 197 SVHCs are on the candidate list and 43 on the authorization list. Substances that are subject to authorization may not be used in the EU unless a company has been authorized to do so. Authorization is a very strong driver for the substitution of substances in ECHA’s opinion. “The better we can get this going, the fitter the market gets for circularity”, Bjorn Hansen said. In addition, the information provided by industry must be complete and accurate to make the system work.
REACH registration has provided the EU with the biggest source of chemical data in the world. When moving towards a circular economy, more and more chemicals that need to be registered will come from the waste phase. The chemicals and waste policies need to merge, Bjorn Hansen said. In this context, Bjorn Hansen sees a clear need in ensuring that the interfaces with other legislation and the cooperation with sister agencies improve.
Bjorn Hansen concluded that ECHA is excited to learn about the decisions of the European Commission and sees itself prepared to serve the policy developments of tomorrow. Daniel Calleja agreed. “The decision for this is for the new Commission, for the new EU Parliament.” And he adds, “we need to continue working together to ensure a competitive, safe, innovative, and sustainable chemical sector for the benefit of citizens and the environment.”
Figure 2. Panel discussions and conversations during a break at HCF 2019.
How to Act More Sustainable – International Examples
The meeting also gave the opportunity to learn from international examples on how to protect human health and the environment. Mike Schade, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, Washington, DC, USA, a national coalition of 450 organizations, introduced the Mind the Store campaign. It evaluated which chemicals are used in products and packaging by 40 leading retailers in the USA. The evaluation was based on publicly available information and harmonized with the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP). CFP provides a tool for benchmarking companies as they select safer alternatives and reduce their use of chemicals of high concern.
The aim of the Mind the Store campaign is to create customer awareness and to work with the retailers to drive harmful chemicals out of products and packaging. The retailers have the power to tell their manufacturers and suppliers to clean up their supply chains. Within one year, 7/11 retailers, for example, significantly improved their chemical footprint.
Ingeborg Mork Knutsen, Senior Advisor, Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, Norway, spoke about the willingness of her country to deal with the problem of marine litter. The largest sources of plastic waste on the coast has been identified to come from the fish industry agriculture, and construction. The Ministry has developed many ideas such as an environmental tax for plastic producers: The more of their plastic they recycle, the lower their tax. Another example is an app for lost fishing gear. It makes it easier for recreational fishermen to report where lost commercial fishing equipment is. A diving club then receives money to track and take out the lost fishing gear. “In general, however, we need to think differently about how plastic products are designed, produced, and used.” Ingeborg Knutsen recommends developing standards in the EU. And to succeed, we need global efforts, she said. Norway has put forward a proposal for stronger control of the international trade in plastic wastes.
Justine Maillot, Zero Waste Europe, Brussels, Belgium, agreed that plastic pollution does not start when plastics enter the ocean. “We have to look at a solution upstream.” Companies invest huge sums in plastics production and little into waste management. Instead, it has to be made sure that the products are sustainable by design. The European Single-use Plastic Directive is a good first approach in her opinion. It plays a big role as an incentive for industry. However, prioritizing prevention and the reduction of plastic production and consumption, for example within the circular economy agenda, is more useful.
Eva Karlsson, CEO of Houdini Sportswear, Nacka, Sweden, explained that since 2001 her company is working hard to move from linear to circular concepts. Today 80 % of the clothes of her company are circular; in 2022 it should be 100 %. “In nature, nothing is wasted.” She sees this as a role model for circularity.
Houdini Sportswear uses organic fibers, avoids fiber mixtures, and creates other design principles that enable recycling at the end of the life cycle. For this, they work closely together with their suppliers and with bluesign® who helps them from the chemical side. As a result, they came up with clothes that can be composted and that turned into soil and fertilizer for growing vegetables, that they, basically, can be eaten.
Bioplastics are often seen as a sustainable alternative to fuel-based plastics. However, Eva Karlsson experienced that when asking suppliers what the base of their bioplastics is, they often have no idea and often lack curiosity and interest if the solution is indeed better than conventional plastic in terms of sustainability and human health. We are very privileged in that we have the time and money to think about what we consume. This also gives us responsibility which we should make good use of.
ECHA is calling for public consultation to restrict microplastics and invites everybody to contribute and submit arguments and evidence in favor of an ambitious and wide-ranging restriction before 20 September 2019.
Figure 3. During their talks: (left to right) Ingeborg Mork Knutsen, Senior Advisor, Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, Norway, Eva Karlsson, CEO of Houdini Sportswear, Nacka, Sweden, and Justine Maillot, Zero Waste Europe, Brussels, Belgium.
Chemical Data Accessibility
Among many other topics, the enormous amount of chemical data that was collected under REACH and CLP was of great interest to the participants of the event. 22,000 substances were registered and 94,000 registration dossiers submitted. ECHA received CLP notifications for almost 150,000 substances. More data than ever before is available. All data is somehow related to the IUCLID format. IUCLID is a software developed by ECHA and OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to record, store, maintain, and exchange data on intrinsic and hazard properties of chemical substances. The vision has been to make this an international database and indeed ECHA sees a global uptake of IUCLID.
Confidential data is kept inside the firewalls, but other data are available on ECHA’s website. They are searchable and integrated with other databases through the ECHA portal, the data can be used in OECD predicting toxicity tools, and it can be made available physically so that people can use it without breaching ownership rights. Global data sharing is increasing between all parties.
Users have different levels of expertise and interest. The vast amount and the complexity of the data make understanding and using them challenging. “It is not only the access that leads you to the gold. The mining is complex and there are all kinds of issues”, Mike Rasenberg, Head of the Unit for Computational Assessment of ECHA, explained.
Future uses, improved linking with other databases, the balance between public access and confidentially were discussed. Data can be used for sustainability, circularity, and substitution, or for helping countries in the process of developing their own chemicals management system to make shortcuts, to give a few examples. Main issues are how the value can be further developed, how ownership is respected, and the access to the data can be further streamlined. There are a number of discussions going on that will have an effect on the ownership and reuse of the data. Use of data for research and development in the EU, for example, is a topic of interest.
Nicholas Ball, Toxicology Consultant, TERC, Dow Chemical, Zurich, Switzerland, suggests developing a global data sharing mechanism in a kind of iTunes or Amazon for chemical safety data. It was discussed whether or for whom the data should be freely accessible or accessible for a fee. Companies generate the data which is time- and resource-consuming. Is the value of the data equivalent to the market the companies gain access to? Can data of interest be sold? Should academia and poorer countries then receive free access? What does it mean for global sustainable development if these data were not freely accessible?
The 12th Helsinki Chemicals Forum will take place from June 4 – 5, 2020.
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