Of all the products that you buy and all the materials that you use, no less than 95% can be directly linked to chemicals or chemical processes. This is stated in a report from the European Commission and shows the crucial role of the chemical sector in the transition to a circular economy and sustainable society. It is also one of the reasons why the chemicals, plastics and life sciences sector, as a supplier to many other industrial branches, was recognised as an essential sector in Belgium and across Europe during the corona crisis.
On the one hand, this demonstrates the extent to which the chemicals sector forms the foundation of numerous industrial value chains and consumer goods offering greater comfort and sustainability; from medicines to computers and from car batteries to solar panels. On the other hand, this requires the chemicals industry to take a great deal of responsibility to ensure production and products are sustainable and safe, with minimal environmental impact and maximum protection of consumer and employee. That is a huge challenge in a world in which scientific insights are constantly evolving, legislation is continuously strengthened, and companies have to ensure they are continuously making the corresponding adaptations.
The fact that chemicals are ubiquitous does not make everybody feel comfortable. The presence of chemicals in end consumer products can be invisible or intangible and is often expressed in complex formulae or difficult substance names. This often leads to mistrust. Particularly when the media offers coverage of chemical waste being dumped from drugs labs or the presence of hazardous substances in imported toys. Practices that, for the sake of clarity, are totally unacceptable and must be controlled more effectively.
The initial signs of a negative impact from chemical substances on the environment or human health date from the 1960s and 70s with a few globally publicised disasters as the very lowest points, such as those in Seveso in Italy or Bhopal in India. Through the years, new insights and evidence about the undesirable effects of certain chemical substances, during or after use, have led to an increasingly stringent legislative framework with respect to environmental and product safety.
The chemicals industry has not been blind to its societal impact and in the mid-80s launched the Responsible Care initiative. With this initiative, the worldwide chemicals industry voluntarily engaged to put health and safety first. Not just within the factory walls and the immediate vicinity of the production sites, but also further along the value chain, among industrial users and consumers.
This safety culture remains the absolute top priority within the sector. Given the fact that chemical companies often work with pressurised processes and/or at high temperatures, they always ensure great care is taken with regard to workers health. That is why essenscia endowed a chair in process safety and safety sciences in collaboration with the Universities of Leuven and Antwerp. Every year, the sector federation and its ‘Club Sécurité des procédés’ and Process Safety Academy also organises numerous safety courses for engineers and students.
A fundamental turning point in chemicals policies came about in 2006, with the introduction of the European REACH regulation, which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation and restriction of CHemical Substances. From that date onwards, it was no longer to the authorities to assess the safety (or lack thereof) of chemical substances but to the industry, under the strict supervision of various competent authorities, to demonstrate the safe production and use of chemical substances , prior to introducing them to the European market.
For the substances of greatest concern, the REACH chemical legislation also imposes additional restrictions on use. As a result, these substances can only be used temporarily under very specific circumstances and, in some cases, only with the explicit authorisation of public authorities. Unsafe uses are thereby clearly forbidden. In addition, specific product legislation imposes additional conditions, such as regulations regarding biocides and cosmetics or for toys directive.
Under the motto ‘no data, no market’, REACH has also led to better cooperation between companies in order to thoroughly assess the hazard properties of chemical substances without unnecessarily duplicating animal tests. Nowadays, product portfolios are being scrutinised carefully and less sustainable applications are being pushed aside. essenscia is contributing to the implementation of REACH by means of its own training programmes. With over 2,500 training hours per year, the federation helps companies, particularly SMEs, to correctly apply the complex REACH requirements.
REACH also encourages innovation to look for safer alternatives to the substances of greatest concern wherever possible. This led, for example, to the phasing out of certain phthalates and brominated flame retardants. The fact that these sustainable innovations are not always in the headlines is partly because companies want to protect their intellectual property and innovation lead.
Nevertheless, there are still industrial applications where, for the time being, no fully-fledged alternative has been found for some substances of concern. In those cases, strict risk management measures are applied, coupled with stringent controls and enforcement. That this broad approach had a clear positive effect can be seen from the sectoral emission values in the area of water, soil and air. These are systematically decreasing, despite a rising production index. Similarly, occupational accident statistics show that workers’ exposure to harmful chemicals is well controlled.
Europe is now going even further along the path towards sustainable transition and, in 2020, launched its ambitious and extensive Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, as part of the Green Deal. With this development, the European Commission is introducing a new game-changer, 15 years after the implementation of REACH. Societal expectations are evolving, on the one hand, towards an increased demand for more information and, on the other, towards increased expectations regarding safer products and minimal exposure to chemical substances.
This sustainable chemical strategy focuses on a more ressource efficient use, a circular economy, the recovery of biodiversity and reducing harmful emissions. Further strengthening of the policy framework is imminent, with new requirements and obligations for industry and additional restrictions on the use of substances of concern. The sector is already committed to continue working on a further reduction of emissions into the environment within the contours of the European action plan on zero pollution.
In that context, a societal and political debate on essential use is urgently needed. It revolves around the crucial question as to how we as a society wish to find a new balance between the essential contributions made by the chemical sector to meeting pressing societal needs and the constant pursuit of ever safer products with the least possible impact on people and the environment. What do we really need as a society?
This is also the aim of the PFAS restriction proposal that 5 European countries are jointly preparing to restrict the use of a wide group of persistent fluorinated chemicals (PFAS). It is worth noting that not all of these persistent fluorinated substances have toxic properties and for some applications no valid alternatives are available yet, even though they are being researched extensively. For example, fluorine-based fire-fighting foams are still indispensable to fight industrial fires at extremely high temperatures.
When advancing scientific knowledge translates into stricter legislation and standards, it will be up to the chemical sector to adapt once again to this ever-changing context. Just as it has done in the past. It is, therefore, logical, that the most risky substances are banned from consumer goods or that more vulnerable groups such as young children, pregnant women or the elderly are subject to stricter protection rules.
Source : essenscia own calculations based on CLP, DSD and DPD legislations and announced changes to CLP in the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability. CLP= regulation 1272/2008; DSD= directive 67/548/EEC; DPD= directive 1999/45/EC.
Simultaneously, it goes without saying that the use of potentially hazardous basic molecules remains permitted in a strictly regulated industrial context. As long as there are adequate guarantees that they can be produced and used safely in the production environment or professional setting and that the ultimate end products are safe to use. This is part of a risk-based approach that correctly and equitably assesses the societal added value of various chemical building blocks.
Nor can it be denied that there is growing and understandable societal concern about the endocrine disrupting effects of certain chemical substances, their neuro- and immunotoxicological properties, the presence of microplastics in the food chain or the accumulation of persistent and difficult to degrade substances in the environment. Just think of the PFOS issue, a typical example of a shifting historical perspective whereby substances are first phased out on the basis of additional research, and the standards framework around them is tightened considerably in subsequent years as measuring techniques and scientific knowledge develop.
It is a continuous process to reduce possible health effects as much as possible. This is reflected in further adjustments and refinements to risk-based assessments as scientific insights evolve, a sufficiently robust European assessment framework emerges, and alternatives become available and affordable. It remains a delicate but necessary balancing act between fulfilling societal needs and the risk of exposure to hazardous substances during use or reuse, the recycling process, or waste processing.
Because chemistry lies at the heart of most product chains, the new European policy pays a lot of attention to the presence of chemicals in consumer goods. Europe wants to put forward new principles to strive for Safe and Sustainable by Design. It is about establishing close partnerships between companies – producers and users – to jointly develop future-proof chemical building blocks and articles, safe and sustainable from the design stage onwards.
However, in order to realise this seemingly obvious objective, difficult ethical discussions arise. How can we fairly balance the various aspects of sustainability? What if alternatives are bio-based but require more energy? How do we assess the impact of land and water use compared to CO2-emissions? What if alternatives are safer but less efficient? Or how can we assess new consumer products that emit lower levels of CO2 but require rare raw materials in the production process? There is a clear need for a helicopter vision that transcends pigeonholing.
Portfolio Sustainability Assessment : innovation towards Safe and Sustainable by Design product applications
They are also working closely with priority users in a safe, responsible and sustainable manner. For example, the phytopharmaceutical industry, introduced ‘Integrated Pest Management’ to make better and more efficient use of crop protection products in agriculture. The paint industry has made its product range sustainable by replacing some of the solvents in paint with water-based formulations.
Europe’s ambitious sustainability strategy offers opportunities for innovative and resilient companies. A level playing field, however, is vital to maintain international competitiveness. This means that the transition must be accompanied by a supportive legislative framework and adequate controls on imported goods at European borders. The import of substances of concern from other parts of the world is counter-productive and places a burden on the circular economy in Europe in which materials must be able to be reused as much as possible.
The challenge for the chemicals and life sciences sector in Belgium? To continue to supply essential building blocks and finished products to fulfil our societal needs, within a globalised economy, with increasing competition from emerging economies, in a way that is both sustainable and safe, while reducing the ecological footprint in terms of energy and climate, raw materials and water consumption.
The chemicals, plastics and life sciences sector is resolutely taking up this challenge. But an industry in transition also needs a constructive dialogue. To determine, together with policy-makers and society, what is feasible and desirable at what time. Maintaining sustainable economic activities in Belgium and Europe is a vital condition to realise the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and to avoid de-localisation of production to regions with less robust environmental and climate ambitions. We must strive for the right balance of economic prosperity within the ecological planetary boundaries. This is also an essential part of sustainable development.