Reach: the chemical industry's No1 environmental issue

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB]

The EU chemicals industry is subject to a far greater level of environmental law than any other region, but this has not been greeted too warmly in some quarters

NEIL SINCLAIR/LONDON

The chemicals industry, most of its suppliers and a significant number of the major industrial consumers of chemicals accept in principle the need for increased environmental accountability.

Yet many chemicals producers and distributors believe there is a real danger that the legislative and regulatory pressures on the industry have become too complex and excessively expensive particularly if they are to compete in a global business with low-cost and comparatively under-regulated companies in Asia and the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, most environmental groups and some other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) disagree with the Reach (Registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals) legislation. This is only one - albeit the most prominent and contentious - of the battlegrounds on which the two sides have staked out their positions.

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Most industry and environmental groups unhesitatingly list Reach as their No 1 regulatory issue, with implementation, compliance and cost overtaking concerns on the principle and scope of the legislation now that it has finally won EU approval.

Regulatory issues

But while Reach continues to grab the headlines and divide opinions, the chemicals industry in Europe faces a range of other legislative and regulatory issues. They include reviews of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, vehicle end-of-life rules, new laws to promote cleaner air and drinking water, plus a host of other regulations from the phasing out of mercury exports to directives on groundwater contamination and cosmetics.

The European Commission's (EC) review of WEEE, which is scheduled for 2008, is expected to focus on the collection and processing targets set by the directive, while also considering the legislation's overall scope, operational requirements and the costs of compliance. Under the current rules, member states should be collecting 4kg of waste electrical and electronic equipment per person per year. But some EU countries are falling far short of the target, with high costs and inadequate or inconvenient collection and processing facilities being cited frequently for the shortfall.

Also suffering more than a few teething troubles connected with the industry's readiness to comply with new regulations is the End-of-Life Vehicle (ELV) Directive. It requires that 85% - by weight - of material in cars be recovered at the end of the vehicle's life. From 2015, it is planned that the recovery target is increased to 95%, with 65% to be recycled or re-used.

Just over a year ago the EC was warned by a stakeholder group that the re-use and recycling targets were unlikely to be achieved by many, if any, member states.

ELV has since July 2003 prohibited the sale of new vehicles containing materials or components containing heavy metals. However, after representations from car manufacturers, the EC is considering an amendment that will make six materials and components in vehicle spare parts exempt from the ban.

While there can be little doubt that the EU chemicals industry is subject to a far greater level of regulation, particularly at a pan-European level, than it was even two or three years ago, environmental groups and other NGOs still complain about both under-regulation and inadequate compliance.

Examples cited by Mary Edwards, a regional coordinator for Friends of the Earth (FoE), include the absence of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from shipping and aircraft from the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas reduction or the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).

In contrast with road transport, the global shipping industry has largely been viewed as relatively benign in terms of its contribution to global warming. But the shipping industry churns out more than 500m tonnes/year of CO2, a number that on some estimates is put as high as 800m tonnes/year.

While shipping uses a lot less fuel per tonne-mile of cargo carried than either road or air transport, its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 38-72% by 2020 if no fresh mitigation measures are taken, according to research undertaken by the Bluewater Network - an affiliate of FoE's US branch.

Kyoto update

FoE and other environmental groups have pushed hard for the inclusion of shipping and aviation in any update of the Kyoto Protocol.

FoE, WWF and other environmental groups such as Greenpeace are also concerned that a range of legislation, including rules governing air quality and potential carcinogenics in plastics and other toxic chemicals in products, contains loopholes which expose consumers to unacceptable risks.

A spokeswoman for WWF said her organisation was focusing most of its efforts on Reach - "which we feel is woefully inadequate." She cited the need for more research into the effects of toxic substances and complained about "loopholes" in Reach, including its regulation of substances produced in small volumes.

But their gripes are not restricted to a perceived lack of appropriate legislation. They bemoan what they view as inadequate - and in some areas non-existent - enforcement of environmental regulations. Drinking water has long been the subject of detailed and strict regulation. But groundwater has, until recently, been largely ignored, although chemical plant operating permits throughout most of the EU have for many years regulated the content of effluent pumped into rivers and other watercourses.

Last autumn, however, the European Parliament finalised a directive aimed at introducing mandatory rules to prevent hazardous substances entering groundwater. The proposed legislation is aimed mainly at regulating the agriculture industry, which is held responsible for the "run-off" into the water courses of fertilizers and other agrochemicals. The directive, which is due to enter force in 2009, with a review six years later, imposes a limit on the level of nitrates in groundwater across the EU.

Concern about the impact of detergents on the environment led to the introduction in 2005 of a revised EU regulation which mandates, with some limited exceptions, the ultimate biodegradability of surfactants used for domestic detergents.

Set for phase-out from 2011 in the EU is the export of mercury under plans by the EC to reduce its use and emissions globally. The EU exports about 1,000 tonnes/year of mercury, most of it surplus material from the region's chlor-alkali industry, which has its own voluntary scheme to phase out the material in chlorine production.

EC environment commissioner Stavros Dimas has admitted, however, that action by the EU will not be enough to solve the mercury problem worldwide. It has appealed to the UN to increase its efforts to eliminate trade in mercury.

Additional initiatives

Other environmental initiatives working their way through the EU legislature include a 690 tonnes/year cap on the use of methyl bromide from 2007, and a ban on the marketing and use of perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) from the beginning of 2008. Exemptions, however, are expected to be allowed where no economically or technically acceptable substitute can be found. The proposed ban, which has already led to the removal of PFOS from consumer products, will allow existing fire-fighting foams that contain the product to be phased out over a four-and-a-half year period.

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