Regulating chemicals based on the essential use concept


One of the new aspects of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability published in 2020 is to introduce the notion of “essential use” to regulate chemicals in Europe. This gives rise to a number of important questions. 

The following aspects have already been reflected in an early debate – who will decide on what is essential and what is not? How to make sure that the whole sectors of economy (e.g. cosmetics, personal care) are not excluded as they may be deemed non-essential? How can this concept make EU decision making on chemicals smoother instead of complicating the legislative process?

These important questions have been raised by many stakeholders at a recent digital dialogue organised by Cefic earlier this year. Reflecting on this debate and other ongoing discussions on this topic, we have developed an approach that could successfully address all these concerns.

A publicly accountable Essential Use Committee should have the mandate to decide

The very discussion about what is essential and what is not is by definition subjective.  Everyone can agree that there are no objective scientific criteria for being ‘essential’ as what is essential for one person, family, community or even nation may differ from what others consider essential. What is essential can also rapidly change: few people could predict 30 years ago that smartphone and mobile technologies would be essential for the progress of our society nowadays. It is also safe to assume that we don’t know for sure what kind of innovative technologies we will be relying on 30 years from now.

It all means that defining what is essential right now is a matter of political choice. A Committee with a political mandate and accountability to decide on this needs to be created and empowered to make this choice. Such an Essential Uses Committee (EUC) could for example be made up of representatives from the Commission, European Parliament, Member States, civil society and industry experts. This body would be specifically empowered to assess essential use and give recommendations to Member States government and the European Commission.

Enhancing EU’s flagship chemicals safety law

Thanks to REACH, the EU has one of the most advanced and sophisticated legislation in the world that ensures one of the highest levels of protection for human health and environment from adverse effects of chemicals. The system has been reviewed several times by the European Commission which confirmed that the system works, albeit some area need improvement. REACH is a household name globally and many other countries are already copying or planning to copy elements of REACH, recognising this as a “best in class” system.

We agree with the European Commission that improvements need to be made, all the evidence points to the following fact – REACH is “fit for purpose” and must remain the “guardian legislation”. There is no need to build a new system from scratch or turn it upside down. As ‘essential use’ is currently not integrated in REACH, we have to find a way to incorporate it in such   a way that it could help to improve REACH.

The concept of “essential use” in fact can complement the existing Restriction and Authorisation processes which have the same objective – secure safe use of the most harmful chemicals. Every substance put forward for Authorisation or Restriction under the current system needs to undergo a number or checks, from verifying if there are alternatives available to assessing potential socio-economic impact of this decision. In addition to these assessments, a new Essential Use Committee could at the same time decide whether certain uses of a given substance fall under “essential” or ‘non-essential’, considering functionality, technical performance of alternatives and broader consequences if certain products are discontinued.

All these elements combined can facilitate case-specific evaluations, streamline the scrutiny process and lead to better decision making. 

The European chemical industry is committed to implementing the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability in a way that supports homegrown European industry and European innovation. As chemicals are present in 96% of all manufactured goods and all key strategic supply chains, most of the technological advancements needed to achieve the European Green Deal will be based on chemicals in some shape and form.

Effective implementation of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability will therefore lay important foundations for achieving the goals of the European Green Deal. It means the stakes are high for the EU to integrate the concept of “essential use” in a way that can enhance the system’s ability to regulate harmful substances without putting breaks on much needed innovation.

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.
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