Defining Europe’s “essential” chemicals for society

One of the actions announced by the European Commission in its new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability published in 2020, is to phase out the most harmful chemicals for non-essential societal use, in particular in consumer products. Essential societal use of chemicals is described in the strategy as  “a use necessary for health, safety or is critical for the functioning of society and if there are no alternatives that are acceptable from the standpoint of environment and health.” 

But how to translate this political objective into legislation and roll it out in practice is yet to be defined.  

The EU chemical industry fully supports the regulatory framework that maintains a high level of protection for people and environment, and continues investing into safer and more sustainable European-produced substances.  

This is why we are actively engaging in a discussion about how the concept of essential use  could be incorporated into existing EU chemicals legislation.  

Many question marks remain on use of this concept 

Essential use is a relatively novel concept and has a limited basis in international and European law.  Recent stakeholder discussions have showed that many practical  questions still remain unanswered. One cannot roll out the concept without a broad  debate including all corners of society.  

  • What shortcomings of the current EU chemicals legislation would it fix? 
  • Who will decide what is (non-) essential for society? 
  • Would this concept be compatible with the EU treaties and with the World Trade Organisation requirements? 
  • How will we decide which chemicals are “essential” to society when many future solutions for a climate-neutral and circular economy haven’t been invented yet? 

Why is it important to take the European Green Deal into consideration on essential uses?  

Our society is about to undergo a major transformation to achieve the 2050 goal of climate neutrality and make the EU economy more circular. Reaching this goal will only be possible with the help of climate neutral and circular economy solutions developed by our industry because chemicals are used in 95% of all manufactured goods and in most of Europe’s strategic value chains. Over the next decades we expect an increasing demand for chemicals used in electric vehicle batteries, insulation foams for buildings, composite materials in wind turbines, just to name a few. More innovative chemical-based solutions are likely to emerge in the next years to respond to our society’s need in efficient renewable energy production,  recycling of plastics, clean mobility, smart and energy neutral housing.  

The substances we produce are used in important products and technologies across various sectors and will be necessary to help achieve the goal of the European Green Deal. Make the definition of  “essential use”  too narrow and prescriptive – and we may risk “outsourcing” production of the Green Deal solutions and technologies to other parts of the world.  

Cefic Digital Dialogue on Essential use in the Chemical Legislation

In March 2020 Cefic organised a Digital Dialogue event to discuss with all interested stakeholders the next steps in integrating  the concept of “essential use” in EU chemical legislation.

We spoke to:

  • Kestutis Sadauskas, Director for Circular Economy and Green Growth​, DG Environment​,
  • MEPs Maria Spyraki (EPP, Greece)
  • Martin Hojsík (Renew Europe, Slovakia),
  • Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC (The European Consumer Association)
  • Professor Geert van Calster from the Catholic University of Leuven
  • Kathleen Garnett from the Wageningen University School of Law who presented their new research The Concept of Essential Use: A Novel Approach to Regulating Chemicals in the European Union.