EU chemicals policy at the heart of a safe and sustainable Europe

In Europe, we have green ambitions to become climate neutral by 2050, create a circular economy, and achieve better safety standards that protect people’s health and the environment. But to get there, fundamental changes are needed so that companies can design and create products that are inherently sustainable. 

As one of the biggest energy consumers and CO2 emitters, the EU chemicals industry has a significant role to play in achieving these ambitions. All chemical reactions involve energy. Moving to alternative energy sources will not achieve climate neutrality alone. So, to become more sustainable, industry must invest in finding new chemicals that conserve more energy, or new ways of manufacturing that consume less energy. 

Further, we still have hardly any chemical mixtures that can be used to form truly circular materials, and our manufacturing processes are still linear – while we can produce recyclable materials, they can still only be recycled a finite number of times. Plastics, for example, can only be recycled around 10-15 times. And we often need primary forms of plastic, in any case. 

If Europe truly wants to move towards circularity – as outlined in the EU Green Deal and set out in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability – we need completely new materials that fit this circular ethos. 

With the information gathered by ECHA after almost 15 years of implementing the REACH and CLP regulations, we now know a lot more about which chemicals are safe and which are hazardous. And this puts us in a great position to ensure that new chemicals produced in Europe are safe and sustainable. 

Our recent report on the operation of REACH and CLP lays out the facts on how the legislation has impacted worker and consumer health, the environment, innovation and competitiveness. It does not, however, attempt to assess all the underlying factors that have resulted in hampered progress at EU level. This will be done by the European Commission in their third general review of REACH and CLP in 2022. 

Green chemistry has shown that you can find more energy-efficient and less energy-consuming processes, while finding molecules that are inherently safer. In Europe, we have very innovative companies who have already come to this realisation, but some businesses still operate as though the best change is no change – and this mindset must be altered. 

We’re no longer in a position where we can afford to continue doing “business as usual” when this may lead to health and safety concerns. We need European industry to step up and ensure that the EU is at the forefront when it comes to designing chemicals that are truly circular and less energy consuming. 

We realise there are challenges ahead, but the Green Deal and the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability gives us the policy direction to make these changes a reality. I firmly believe that ECHA’s work will continue to play a central role in managing evolving challenges linked to chemicals safety.   

Bjørn Hansen
Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)