A new report from ECHA, the European Chemical Agency, shows that the main driver for companies to replace harmful chemicals with safer alternatives and greener technologies is regulation.
Restrictions and authorisation emerged as the two strongest reasons for substitution.
Restrictions can be adopted to protect human health and the environment from unacceptable risks posed by chemicals. Restrictions are normally used to limit or ban the manufacture, placing on the market (including imports) or use of a substance, but can impose any relevant condition, such as requiring technical measures or specific labels.
Authorisation – the ‘A’ in REACH – is a process that aims to ensure that substances of very high concern (SVHCs) are progressively replaced by less dangerous substances or technologies where technically and economically feasible alternatives are available. The process is set in motion when a member state or ECHA, at the request of the Commission, submits a proposal to classify a substance as an SVHC. The substance is placed on the Candidate List and subsequently assessed for inclusion on the Authorisation List. Once a substance is on the list, companies must apply for an authorisation if they wish to market this substance, or continue or start using this.
The survey was conducted among industry associations and more than 80 companies, many of which were affected by authorisation or restriction. Some 19 % reported that restriction was their main reason for replacing hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives.
For 15% of respondents, inclusion of a substance on the Candidate List or Authorisation List, triggered the decision to seek a replacement for a harmful substance. For some, the decision came even earlier: while the regulatory authorities were still assessing whether or not action was needed, the substitution was made.
Aside from regulation, companies also cited customer demand for safer alternatives, a desire to enhance their image and the adoption of corporate sustainability policies as the main drivers to substitute hazardous substances with safer alternatives.
The report also disclosed a combination of technical, economic and market barriers confronting companies face when transitioning to alternative substances – including difficulties in finding technically feasible alternatives, a lack of financial incentive and a reduced competitive advantage.
Decreases in worker exposure and emissions to the environment were mentioned as the main benefits of substitution.
“It’s clear that the most innovative companies are those that have adopted a green mindset, with substitution at the core of their business activities,” said Bjorn Hansen, ECHA’s executive director.
“While regulation pushes for harmful substances to be replaced, moving away from them is also increasingly becoming an essential part of their corporate policies and the way towards a sustainable and greener Europe in the future.”
A second report, published together with the survey results, highlighted the impact of ECHA’s substitution strategy over the past two years and its focus for 2020-21, in addition to regulatory risk management.
The two reports uncover both the direct and indirect effects of REACH in driving substitution, showing how this is driven both by regulatory action and through indirect encouragement to companies to switch to safer chemical alternatives.