Can Chemicals Management Solve the Challenge of Microplastics?

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Plastic and microplastic pollution is a growing problem. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Possible solutions to the growing volume of microplastics pollution around the world were discussed at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF2018) last week in Helsinki, Finland. Experts from a variety of organizations considered what help chemicals management regulations might provide.

Plastics are an integral part of the global economy, and production volumes are forecast to double over the next 20 years. Microplastics originate both from fragmentation of ‘macroplastics’ and from direct manufacture of products such as microbeads.

The pollution of oceans and surface waters with microplastics is widespread. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastics enter the ocean each year.

Jane Bremmer, with the National Toxics Network in Australia, pointed to a lack of regulations to help resolve the issue. Calling microplastics a “new toxic timebomb”, she said contaminants leached by plastics and plastics packaging are key problems. Her organization has laid out a plan of action that includes a local, national and global multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach to solutions, including chemicals management and regulations through the use of global instruments such as SAICM and others. She called for chemical regulations to be used to “turn off the tap, mop up the mess and clean out the cupboard.”

Steve Russell, from the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, said his organization believes that waste management is a more important priority than chemicals management as a solution to this problem.

The EU Commission’s Valentina Bertato, policy officer sustainable chemicals with the REACH Sustainable Chemicals unit, pointed to single-use plastics as a major barrier to a circular economy. Plastics and microplastics are a policy priority for the commission, as they create an unacceptable risk, and while chemicals management is not the only solution, it is part of the solution. She added that the goal is to use plastics responsibly.

An industry organization called the CEFLEX Initiative was launched 18 months ago, a collaborative initiative of EU companies looking to make flexible packaging more compatible with a circular economy. Graham Houlder, CEFLEX’s managing director, said the organization now has 76 companies including producers, sorters, recyclers and one retailer. He said that plastic products need to be designed for a circular economy and is a challenge that should be solved by industry, not regulators.

So how could chemicals management be a part of the solution of microplastics pollution? Panelists identified three area where it could be part of the solution – during the product design phase to ensure recyclability, with regulations on biodegradable and oxo-degradable plastics, and with regulations governing the intentional release of microplastics.

Reported by Leslie Burt, Chemical Matters

Closing the Gap to Achieve SAICM’s 2020 Goals


Panelists at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum 2018 discussed the challenges faced by developing countries in achieving SAICM’s 2020 goals. Image copyright Messukeskus Helsinki

SAICM, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, was first adopted in 2006 and is a policy framework to promote chemical safety around the world. Its overall objective is the achievement of the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that by the year 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health.

A panel session at last week’s Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF 2018) examined what strategic and systematic approaches could be put in place to support developing countries as they work to achieve the goals of SAICM and to lessen the risk of a growing gap between developed and developing countries.

Panelist Li Cangmin, who works at the Solid Waste and Chemicals Management Center in China’s Ministry of the Environmental Protection, outlined steps being taken by China’s government at the national level. These steps include risk assessments, toxicity testing and monitoring, and R&D into safe alternatives. In the area of chemical environmental management, China is comparing itself with developed countries and learning as much from them as possible.

Thierry Decoud, with Argentina’s Secretariat of Environmental Control and Monitoring in the Ministry of Environmental and Sustainable Development, said that his country has developed a strong regulatory framework over the past 30 years for handling hazardous waste. However, while specific regulations have been developed for specific hazardous chemicals, so far the country has not yet developed or implemented any umbrella regulations for chemicals management. Following its success with waste management regulations, the government is now prioritizing the development of chemicals management regulations.

Johanna Lissinger Peitz, senior advisor and chief negotiator on climate change with Sweden’s government, said her country has a long history of helping other countries to build national legislation for sound management of chemicals and waste. Such help can include building core competencies and training programs, all depending on what the structure of the country’s chemical industry looks like. In general, she added, needs include establishing legislation with clear responsibility to industry, establishment of enforcement mechanisms, and national systems to ensure costs are included in government budgets. Most of all, she said, if we are serious about the challenges of chemicals and waste, developing countries need to prioritize this, otherwise it is very difficult to help them.

A final perspective was provided by David Williamson, associate director with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). His bank focuses on project financing in the private sector, primarily in the Middle East. It is also very involved in environmental infrastructure in water, wastewater and solid waste management. Barriers he says his bank sees include the initiation of policy, then sustaining it over the long term. He added that you need an engaged partner on the government side, otherwise you won’t have an institution to put in place. Almost as important is getting private industry involved, because they are the ones who understand the technical issues and solutions.

Posted by Leslie Burt, Chemical Matters

What’s Next for Europe’s Chemical Regulations?

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ECHA’s REACH database is the most comprehensive chemicals database in the world.

At the end of May, the final registration deadline was passed for REACH, Europe’s chemicals regulations. This deadline affected companies that manufacture or import substances in low volumes, between one and 100 tonnes a year. REACH now regulates all chemicals on the EU market, and the gathering of data on substances on the European market is now complete, resulting in what the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) says is the most comprehensive chemicals database in the world.

Bjorn Hansen, the new head executive director of ECHA, which oversees the implementation of REACH, spoke at last week’s Helsinki Chemicals Forum, and outlined his vision for the organization’s next five years.

Hansen characterized REACH as a driver of economic competitiveness for the EU. He said that by ensuring the same protections for human health and the environment along with a clear legal framework for controlling substances on the market, REACH provides EU businesses with an advantage over their non-EU counterparts.

He also looked at the results of the recently conducted REACH Review, which indicated that improvements can and will be made – such as improvements in protections, efficiencies in training, tools for information gathering and safety data sheets.

Looking ahead, REACH has a role to play in reducing uncertainties for business while improving environmental sustainability. For example, he said, consider the introduction of a new substance. Most new chemicals are initially produced in small quantities, and if successful the production quantities will grow. Under REACH, this means the data pack on the substance will grow as well. If problems arise with the chemical, they will more likely be detected and addressed when production quantities are small, thus creating less of a business problem down the road.

Uncertainty is bad for business, he said, adding that the focus in the coming five years will be to work together with businesses to create a better knowledge base on chemicals.

Reported by Leslie Burt, Chemical Matters



ECHA, Cefic Sign Joint Statement on REACH Implementation

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Cefic president Hariolf Kottmann and ECHA’s executive director Bjorn Hansen sign a joint statement outlining the future cooperation of the two organizations. (Image courtesy of ECHA.)

Now that the third and final registration phase for existing substances under the EU’s chemicals legislation has come to a close, ECHA and the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) have agreed on plans to cooperate on REACH’s implementation.

A formal agreement was signed today — a commitment from both industry and ECHA to focus on improving the scientific assessment of some substances or groups of substances, further enhancing safety information and its communication across the supply chain.

“We welcome this cooperation very much as it shows that together we can make REACH work to the benefit of industry and ECHA, and the wider stakeholder base,” said Marco Mensink, Cefic’s director-general. “Industry will help ECHA to improve the quality of dossiers to help monitoring and enforcement and to improve the scientific quality of the process.”

The joint statement “shows European industry’s commitment to REACH and ECHA’s commitment to work with industry,” said Bjorn Hansen, ECHA’s executive director. “The commission has asked us in their recent report to work with industry to increase efficiencies in implementing REACH and this is a step in doing so. As ECHA is committed to openness and transparency, this work will be done in close collaboration with Member States and our other accredited stakeholder organizations, representing NGOs, trade unions, consumers and academia.”

The two organizations have also agreed to work jointly to solve scientific and technical challenges by facilitating technical discussions between experts and to improve the transparency on the quality of dossiers.

Posted by Leslie Burt, Chemical Matters