There are a number of reasons why we need better information on our consumption patterns and content of chemical products and articles:
1. To promote a non-toxic environment and a circular economy
With the EU striving towards a circular economy and to achieve a non-toxic environment, it is important that we know which articles or components contain chemicals that are potentially hazardous. The European Commission recognised this in their communication addressing the interface between chemical, product, and waste legislation.
Many substances that are banned or identified as being of Very High Concern (SVHCs) by the EU, continue to circulate in society via recycled materials. Currently the risk of identified hazardous substances occurring in recycled materials is high because many of them have been produced in large amounts for a very long time. Yet it is not often known in which products these chemicals have been used.
Providing information on chemical content to waste handling companies would make it possible to exclude materials or articles that contain hazardous substances from the recycling stream.
2. To facilitate preparedness for changes in legislation
The identification and regulation of chemicals as SVHCs is a slow process and currently only 191 chemicals have been listed as such. In contrast, the SIN list by Chemsec, the international chemical secretariat, which identifies chemicals as SVHCs using the same criteria as under REACH, currently contains 919 chemicals.
The SIN list indicates that many more chemicals could be identified as substances of concern in the future and, thus, potentially be subject to further restrictions. Even more chemicals will be identified as SVHCs if the criteria to define SVHCs are updated in light of improved scientific understanding of chemical exposure and toxicity.
Today, when a new chemical is identified as SVHC under REACH, companies and retailers have to go to their supply chain to ask if that chemical is present in their articles. However, if companies had complete information on chemical content, they would be better prepared for new chemical regulations and it would help them to proactively phase out substances from their supply chains that are likely to be listed as new SVHCs.
3. To enable informed decision making
Voluntary actions to phase out substances that are not yet regulated at the EU level require knowledge about the presence of all chemicals in articles, i.e. not just those currently regulated. To give an example, a recent study reported that carpets currently sold in Europe contain over 59 substances identified as potentially hazardous, including multiple mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and chemicals toxic for reproduction.
Only ten of these substances were listed as SVHCs, meaning that they have to be reported to downstream professionals. Because retailers selling the carpets and professionals working with them have no legal right to be informed, they are likely not aware of the presence of the 49 remaining chemicals, making incentives to work proactively to phase out unwanted chemicals weak.
Under REACH Article 33, consumers are legally entitled to know if any SVHCs are present in an article of interest, but only if they specifically ask for the information and are willing to wait 45 days to get a reply. Few consumers use this right and even fewer are willing to wait that long.
Thus, companies and consumers that want to avoid potentially hazardous chemicals, such as those on the SIN list that are not yet regulated, have no possibility of doing so.
4. To develop chemical monitoring in the marine environment
Information on emissions from everyday articles constitutes an important piece of the puzzle to map substance flows to the marine environment. We need to know where and how chemicals are emitted in order to prioritise which chemicals to monitor and develop cost-efficient measures to reduce these emissions.
It is desirable to further develop methods to identify chemicals that have a high probability of being found in elevated levels in the environment and wildlife. An important piece of information currently lacking in such estimations is information on diffuse chemical emissions from articles, which can only be quantified if more information on chemical content in articles becomes available.
Having such information could also assist in developing programmes of measures and in updating the current list of 48 priority substances or substance groups under the Water and Marine Strategy Framework Directives (WFD and MSFD). The list of substances to monitor needs constant updates to include all substances that contribute significantly to any negative impact arising from the current chemical contamination of the marine ecosystem.
5. To increase transparency while safeguarding confidential business information
It is often argued that detailed information about the chemical composition of articles cannot be shared because of business confidentiality concerns, however, there are industry-wide initiatives that address this issue.
One such initiative is the international material data system (IMDS), which encompasses the entire supply chain for the automobile industry and allows suppliers to label up to 10 percent of the mass of their products as confidential as long as they do not contain any restricted substances. Suppliers can also choose with which parties in the supply chain they share their information.
Another way of dealing with confidentiality is by working with third-party organisations that collect data from suppliers and then inform relevant stakeholders if the supplier complies with chemical regulations. Non-disclosure agreements between the supplier and the third party make sure that confidentiality is maintained.
6. To address global challenges
Even though REACH is sometimes referred to as the best chemical legislation in the world, the globalised market means that Europe faces difficulties in controlling chemicals that enter via imports. To a large extent, articles imported to the EU fall under the same legislation as those produced in the EU, with importers being responsible for the products complying with EU legislation.
However, the European Commission has found that the control of imported goods is insufficient and that products imported from abroad have a higher occurrence of non-compliance with EU chemical regulation than products produced in the EU.
Products purchased privately directly from non-EU suppliers fall outside of EU legislation because the consumers themselves are considered to be the importers. It is therefore possible that such products contain chemicals that have been restricted for use in the EU.
The importance of better information about chemicals in consumer products is acknowledged at international level. The global Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which has goals set for 2020, cites increased transparency of chemicals in products as one of eight major emerging policy issues. Additionally, Sweden launched the Alliance for High Ambition on chemicals and waste in July 2018 with the aim of reaching global agreement on sustainable chemical management.