How a hazard-based approach and grouping of chemicals can pave the way for circular economy
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How a hazard-based approach and grouping of chemicals can pave the way for circular economy

Prioritization is a well-used term in chemicals management. It builds on the idea that instead of trying to deal with all hazardous chemicals in products and supply chains at the same time, you should focus on the worst offenders first.

This is a wise approach that I fully agree with. So far so good.

The problem is that many professionals connected to chemical regulation focus too much on prioritization. They spend their time forever prioritising instead of keeping their eyes on the ultimate goal, which is of coursing dealing with the hazardous chemicals.

In REACH, for example, substances are assessed, analysed and prioritised by Member States and ECHA for inclusion on the Candidate List. In over ten years time barely 200 substances have been included on the list.

In over ten years time barely 200 substances have been included on the Candidate List

Knowing that almost 2000 of the 3000 substances with unknown or likely exposure and hazardous properties have not yet been dealt with in a regulatory context – would you find this pace satisfactory?

If you would approach the topic of hazardous chemicals from a layman’s perspective, I think most people would ask: “Well, if certain chemicals are toxic – why don’t you just ban them?”

This question actually makes a lot of sense, but since hazardous chemicals play an important role in the production of many everyday products, they cannot simply be banned as of tomorrow.

“A prioritisation should never mean that some chemicals are never dealt with”

Reformulating products takes time and therefore a phaseout of unwanted chemicals need to happen gradually – hence the prioritisation. However, it is equally important to recognize that a prioritisation should never mean that some chemicals are never dealt with.

There need to be a strict timeline. To achieve this, the resources set aside of actually dealing with prioritised substances should be much larger than the process itself (which, sadly, is not always the case, believe it or not).

Again, looking at it from a different perspective: How do progressive downstream users, retailers and brands deal with hazardous chemicals?

Many times they just don’t care about different regulations, rather they repeatedly go beyond legal requirements in order to be both profitable and sustainable.

But what is their rationale for doing so? It is actually easier, cheaper and a good business model in the long run.

It is much easier to completely ban the use of hazardous substances and substance groups and focus the efforts on the few substances that have no immediate substitute in their application.

This approach has multiple benefits:

  1. It is easier to communicate to suppliers and to verify compliance.
  2. It is much easier to communicate to consumers and customers.
  3. And last but not least, it allows for a circular economy.

“In order to achieve true circular economy one needs to consider hazardous chemicals”

Circular economy has been put forward as a way to tackle resource scarcity as well as environmental problems. But in order to achieve true circular economy, one needs to consider hazardous chemicals. Basically, such substances can’t be included in any products that are about to be reused, recycled, or up-cycled.

In a true circular economy one can never simply look at where chemicals are used today, since you never know where they might end up tomorrow in the next re-use cycle.

The whole concept of chemical risk assessments is actually less important in a circular world, because you can never predict the endless possibilities for future exposure. Sooner or later both humans and the environment will be exposed.

So instead of solely looking at potential exposure and the current use of a certain chemical – like regulators do – one must look at the intrinsic properties of a substance.

“You should start grouping substances in order to address more than one at a time”

Special priority should be given to substances that are persistent or bio-accumulative, else we will yet again end up with never ending stories like PCBs, which is still a problem in the many areas where they were once used!

When this is done, you should start grouping substances in order to address more than one at a time. For demonstration purposes, we can divide them in two different categories.

  1. The VIPs– which have testing data or a confirmed read-cross strategy used for identification and immediate action.
  2. The hang arounds– a much larger group of substances that based on their structure probably share the same properties as the VIPs, but lack complete read-across data. Substances identified by QSAR models as probable problematic substances could join the hang-around group as well. All hang arounds should be treated the same way as the VIPs until proven to be less hazardous on the specific end-point in question.

You might find this suggestion controversial, but it is actually only an extended reversed burden of proof. A hang around substance should be considered as hazardous until proven harmless.

If we want to achieve a true circular economy, the answer is to prioritise the removal of hazardous substances in the first place, not to discuss which ones are the most urgent ones.

Resources should be spent on the right issue, which is of course dealing with the problems – not over-analysing them.

Jerker Ligthart
Senior Chemicals Advisor, ChemSec