Green chemistry and the circular economy

Today’s discussion on the circular economy focuses on recycling, reuse and use of renewable sources. However, another important aspect is to ensure that the cycle gives us material that is safe enough to reuse.

To achieve a circular economy, the market needs safe recycled materials of known and high quality, so that it can become an attractive alternative to virgin materials. Substances of concern ending up in recycled materials are an obstacle to this, which is why green chemistry and the innovation of new and safer substances is a key issue for non-toxic material cycles and the circular economy.

There is a great need for regulatory frameworks to address substances of high concern, through the whole material cycle. When products in use today become waste, we need to treat that waste so that hazardous substances are not re-circulated into new products. Materials that contain substances of very high concern (SVHCs) are not at all suitable for recycling. If we allow material containing them in the recycling processes, we will both continue to expose ourselves and the environment to these substances and undermine the reputation of recycled material as something good for the environment.

Parts of the chemicals industry are preparing for the necessary shift – in the resource base for chemical production – from fossil feed stocks to renewable raw materials. Such a transition provides opportunities to change the entire concept of synthesising and producing true green chemistry that promotes the development of non-toxic, resource lean and climate neutral solutions. When aiming to reduce the climate impacts of a material, the hazardous properties need to be fully considered by the industry and regulators as hazardous substances can also be made from bio-based sources.

Improved information on the contents of hazardous chemicals in products is essential for a greener economy. Due to global trade, this is certainly an international issue and the Unep-led programme on Chemicals in Products (CiP) is a good starting point. This global programme focuses on increasing the availability and access to the information needed – throughout the life-cycle of products – so that informed decisions can be made on design, the way products are produced and handled and also the material in them.

At the fourth International Conference on Chemicals Management in late September and early October, it was agreed that all stakeholders of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (Saicm) should implement a CiP programme proposal (CW 5 October 2015). In the implementation of this programme, both industry and the authorities will need to take into account the link between the circular economy, green chemistry and sustainable development.

Efforts aimed at developing chemicals with less hazardous properties, such as low toxicity, good degradability, combined with good functionality, are regarded as a key aspect of “green chemistry”. From a regulatory point of view, safer chemicals and safe use is primarily a responsibility for the industry, with a framework of legal requirements aiming to ensure that this responsibility is met.

Regulation’s role in promoting green chemistry

A regulatory framework for chemicals management, where roles and responsibilities are defined, is an asset for doing business in a country. Companies that meet product and food safety standards, develop an improved potential for business expansion and international trade. Regulatory frameworks thereby provide support and incentives for the chain of research, innovation and market introduction of safer chemicals. Well-functioning legislation that encourages substitution is, therefore, a central tool to support the development and use of substances with safer properties.

The European chemicals regulation REACH, the CLP Regulation, regulations for plant protection and biocides and other chemicals legislation all promote substitution of hazardous substances with less hazardous or methods without chemicals involved. One purpose of REACH is to phase out SVHCs by progressively substituting them with safer chemicals or technologies. In 2012, the European Commission published a study that examined the impact of the REACH Regulation on the capacity to innovate in the European chemical industry. One finding was that the registration process has had an impact on innovation and that the candidate list of SVHCs is driving most activity.

To further promote less hazardous substances on the market, it is necessary to develop additional supportive policies and measures as a stable framework for the development of green chemistry.

The views expressed in contributed articles are those of the expert authors and are not necessarily shared by Chemical Watch.

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Jess Clayton, European Political Economy and Legislative Analyst, 3E Company




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