Chemicals strategy for sustainability

In “A European Green Deal”

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In its 2020 work programme, the European Commission announced, under the European Green Deal, the launch of a Chemicals strategy for sustainability in the third quarter of the year.

On 10 July 2020, the European Parliament adopted a resolution outlining its key demands and priorities as regards the upcoming strategy. It required that the strategy achieve coherence and synergies between chemicals legislation, occupational safety and health and related EU legislation, including specific and general product legislation; legislation on water, soil and air; legislation on sources of pollution, including industrial installations, as well as legislation on waste. It underlined that the strategy should be based on robust and up-to-date scientific evidence, taking account of the risk posed by endocrine disruptors, hazardous chemicals in imported products, and combination effects of different chemicals and very persistent chemicals.

The EP requested an action plan to close the gaps in the current legal framework preventing the presence of chemicals in products, giving priority to the products that consumers come into close and frequent contact with, such as textiles, furniture, children’s products and absorbent hygiene products. It also supported the ‘one substance – one hazard assessment’ principle (meaning that substances should be reviewed by only one EU agency), as well as the creation of a fully connected and interoperable EU chemical safety database.

Parliament called on the Commission to present a legislative proposal to include substances that are toxic for reproduction within the scope of the directive on carcinogens and mutagens at work; to come up with a clear action plan and, if necessary, legislative proposals to address persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances; very persistent and very bioaccumulative substances and persistent and mobile substances; to set specific targets to significantly reduce both the use of chemical pesticides and the risk arising from them. It also reaffirmed its calls for a comprehensive EU framework on endocrine disruptors.

The Commission presented the announced strategy on 14 October 2020. It is based on 5 strands of action:

  • Innovating for safe and sustainable EU chemicals. Measures foreseen include developing EU safe and sustainable-by-design criteria for chemicals; introducing legal requirements on the presence of substances of concern in products through the initiative on sustainable products; making amendments to the EU legislation on industrial emissions to promote the use of safer chemicals by EU industry.
  • Strengthening the EU legal framework to address pressing environmental and health concerns. Actions will be targeted at the protection of consumers and workers against most harmful chemicals; endocrine disruptors; chemical mixtures; chemical pollution in the natural environment and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
  • Simplifying and consolidating the legal framework. Proposed measures include the establishment of a ‘one substance, one assessment’ process to coordinate the hazard/risk assessment on chemicals across chemical legislation; a proposal to strengthen the governance of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and increase the sustainability of its financing model; a proposal to revise the REACH authorisation and restriction processes.
  • Building a comprehensive knowledge base on chemicals. It is notably foreseen to develop an EU early warning and action system for chemicals to ensure that EU policies address emerging chemical risks as soon as identified by monitoring and research; and to create a framework of indicators to monitor the drivers and impacts of chemical pollution and measure the effectiveness of chemicals legislation.
  • Setting the example for a global sound management of chemicals. Actions will aim, notably, at supporting capacity-building of third countries in chemicals assessment and management; and at ensuring that hazardous chemicals banned in the EU are not produced for export.

The strategy proposes several amendments to the REACH Regulation, and announces a revision of REACH 'in the most targeted way possible' for 2022.

In an exchange of views with the Environment Commissioner on 15 October 2020, ENVI Committee members generally supported the strategy, acknowledging that it takes on board many of the elements highlighted in Parliament's July resolution.

The Council endorsed the strategy on 15 March 2021. In its conclusions, it expressly supported the five main areas of action. It welcomed the aim of the ‘one substance, one assessment̕ approach and stressed the importance of clear legal provisions in EU product law and in the sustainable products initiative ensuring that chemicals, materials and products are safe and sustainable-by-design. It underlined the need to ensure that PFAS are eliminated, unless their use is proven essential to society; and to strengthen the EU legal framework in the area of endocrine disruptors. It supported the announced amendment of REACH in a targeted manner, accompanied by a comprehensive impact assessment.

On 16 May 2022, ENVI discussed progress in the strategy implementation with the Commission and ECHA.

Key steps taken so far include the publication of the 'restrictions roadmap', which contains a rolling list of substances - the most harmful to human health and the environment - that will be prioritised for (group) restrictions under REACH. The Commission adopted a recommendation on a European assessment framework for 'safe and sustainable by design' chemicals and materials. The regulation on classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals was revised. A broad PFAS restriction proposal under REACH is currently evaluated by ECHA. In December 2023, the Commission tabled a 'one substance, one assessment' package with 3 legislative proposals. The EU indicator framework for chemicals was released in April 2024, along with a synthesis report providing an assessment.

References:

Author: Vivienne Halleux, Members' Research Service, legislative-train@europarl.europa.eu

As of 20/05/2024.