Defining essential use of chemicals – what is at stake?

Defining Europe’s “essential” chemical for society
Defining Europe’s “essential” chemical for society

Among the actions announced in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability published last year, the European Commission intends to introduce further restrictions to chemicals unless their use is “essential” to society. But whose responsibility will it be to decide what is essential and what not? What should be criteria for “essential” and “non-essential” uses? And could everyone agree on a uniform definition of “essential” use? How can such a concept be embedded into Europe’s flagship chemicals regulation, REACH? And does it help create a supportive framework for the industry to invest into safer and more sustainable European-produced substances and deliver on the objectives of the European Green Deal?  

With nearly 800 participants attending the recent Digital Dialogue organised by Cefic it became clear that these questions concern many stakeholders. The discussion involving speakers from the European Commission, European Parliament, a European consumer organisation, academia and industry revealed that there was no consensus yet among all parties on the most efficient way to apply this concept in practice.  

Kestutis Sadauskas, Director for Circular Economy and Green Growth​, DG Environment​ from the European Commission opened the floor by presenting the Commission’s perspective on criteria for essential use of chemicals and stressed that the Commission would consult all corners of society to define what is essential.  

“Essential use will have to be defined with all stakeholders together. … So that when we apply this principle, it is based on something that is stable, consensual, something that has been scrutinised by society and for which there is a strong buy-in. It is not going to be a top-down application of this approach by the Commission. ” 

Kestutis Sadauskas, Director for Circular Economy and Green Growth​, DG Environment​ from the European Commission

Professor Geert van Calster from the Catholic University of Leuven and Kathleen Garnett from the Wageningen University School of Law presented the findings of their new research, arguing that except for Montreal Protocol, there is at the moment no general approach to using the concept of essential use in EU law. This warrants a further discussion not only on who would decide on criteria but also on legal instruments to incorporate it in existing EU law.  

MEP Maria Spyraki (EPP, Greece) called for a harmonised approach to using the concept in EU regulation and pointed out to an important consideration:

“What may be essential in one region and country may not be essential in another and regulation should take into consideration different perspectives.” 

MEP Maria Spyraki (EPP, Greece)

MEP Martin Hojsík (Renew Europe, Slovakia) advocated a strong link between “essential use” and the Sustainable by Design principle arguing that incorporating this concept into EU law would boost innovation towards more sustainable chemicals.  

Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC (The European Consumer Association) stressed that we need a systemic change one that makes products safe by design, and one that does not rely on the individual consumer decisions or their awareness of products

“We have beautiful legislation but it takes ages to get rid of harmful chemicals, so this essential use concept should be a way to get speedy and simple decision-making process. We should avoid “paralysis by analysis”. 

Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC (The European Consumer Association)

Finally, Sylvie Lemoine, Executive Director Product Stewardship at Cefic concluded that with so many open questions it would be wise to carefully consider implementation and potential pitfalls before turning this concept into EU law. 

“What is essential is very subjective, we’ve already heard during this discussion. Who is going to be accountable in the end for setting criteria? Disinfectants were not deemed essential in some cases before COVID19 is it was considered that soap could do the job. “

Sylvie Lemoine, Executive Director Product Stewardship at Cefic 

What is clear from the dialogue is that we are at the very start of the journey towards making a decision that will affect the whole society. The chemical industry stands ready to help generate the data for relevant Impact Assessment to support evidence-based decision making. 

Who do you think should decide which uses of chemicals are essential? Take part in our poll on Twitter here.