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Substitution Planning at Crossroads: A Challenge for Regulators and Industries

Source: Messukeskus
Providing safe space for alternative providers and having good information throughout the value chain is crucial for promoting substitution planning. The planning shall never be replaced by the regulation tools for better enforcement.

Substitution planning has emerged as a promising solution for green and sustainability. It has gained significant attention in various EU legislative documents, been quoted by numerous EU keynote speakers, and is now receiving increased focus from the European Commission, particularly the DG GROW unit, as they strive to incorporate it into the regulatory framework, despite with a number of barriers creating inertia for implementing substitution.

To understand where the implementation problems are originated from, it is important to identify actors along the value chain who will be affected by the substitution planning and arrange an earnest talk between the officials and the stakeholders.

In pursuit of these objectives, a panel discussion was conducted at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum on April 10, 2024. The panel brought together regulators, experts, NGOs, and downstream representatives to explore the potential for more effective substitution planning in the realms of safer chemistry and environmental protection.

CE1A0881 (1).jpgSource: Messukeskus

Good information throughout the value chain

One critical aspect highlighted by Christel Davidson, representing the Downstream Users of Chemicals Co-ordination Group (DUCC), is the importance of a prioritization list to identify the most harmful substances based on their industrial applications. This list serves as a crucial prerequisite for substitution planning. The next step entails eliciting input from industries regarding the availability of alternative substances. If viable alternatives exist, the regulators may press to request the application of alternatives. In the case where no alternatives are available on the market, the regulators may resort to derogation on essential uses and allow extended timelines for innovation.

The solution sounds all straightforward and easy to carry out from the perspectives of downstream industry. However, as Simon Cogen from the Ministry Economic Affairs Belgium highlighted, the challenge lies in the difficulty of collecting sufficient information from industries to make informed decisions. Industries often place blame on regulators for their perceived inaction. However, given that the development of alternatives requires substantial investment in research and development, spanning several years and carrying the risk of losing market advantage, policymakers must exercise caution in creating the prioritization list to avoid regrettable substitutions.

Good information shall not only be the basis for policy making but also need to be communicated through the value chain. Joel Tickner, Executive Director of Change Chemistry, emphasized the importance of comprehensive information on chemical ingredients, hazards, exposure trade-offs, and other relevant factors. Additionally, the protection of confidential business information was underscored as essential.

Create safe space for alternative providers

Another key actor in successful substitution planning is the alternative provider. Otto Linher, a senior expert at the European Commission from DG GROW, REACH Unit, acknowledged that there is a visible sign of reticence from alternative providers in bringing their solutions on the table.

The question is about how to create safe space for alternative providers, spoke Theresa Kjell, an expert from Chemsec. She cited frustrating instances where alternative providers shared information without making a substantial impact. Moreover, the Authorization process in REACH unintentionally provides a temporary haven for hazardous substances manufacturer, further discouraging alternative innovators and producers. Theresa proposed strong incentives, such as funding and technical support, for those who provide information, along with eliminating the hostile climate that hinders solution providers and stifles the potential for others. Additionally, she suggested that the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) establish a dedicated unit to search for and compile information on available alternatives. By establishing an official framework, the process could become more automatic and alleviate tensions between alternative providers and their passive competitors who lack alternatives but will be compelled to find them in the future.

A nice add-on but not a driving force

One of the purposes of substitution planning is to facilitate chemical regulations and ease the burden on regulators. It builds on the consensus that the businesses across the value chain are proactive to follow through on their substitution plan and even better, consider safe and sustainable by design.

But where is the regulatory trigger to make sure the companies will stick to their substitution plan? Without it, the industry will be reactive to the substitution process, and will only consider alternatives when their product is put on the restriction list.

As Theresa pointed out, substitution planning can never replace ambitious chemical regulations. It is like a railway upon which a locomotive is needed to get us where we need to be, a destination where all companies have phased out the most problematic substances. Introducing a sound system and making it universally applicable to all businesses is a time-consuming endeavor that could divert efforts from pushing for revisions of REACH and other chemical legislation, which possess the potential to realize a future free of toxic substances.

Challenges ahead for regulators and industries

So far, the substitution planning is more of a flamboyant slogan than a concrete roadmap for green and sustainable transitions. To achieve a more coordinated, EU-wide substitution, the following areas require further actions:

For regulators:

  • Set up clear criteria for safer and sustainable alternatives

  • Provide incentives and support for early efforts to substitute and innovators for creating solutions

  • Combine restrictive policies with supportive policies

  • Develop coordination and collaboration networks

For industries:

  • Actively engage in the substitution process and act ahead of the regulation

  • Good communication through the value chain

  • Safe and sustainable by design

In the end, substitution planning may evolve into a regulatory outcome, necessitating all businesses to phase out hazardous substances within a specified timeframe. However, until that point is reached, regulators and industries have much work ahead of them.

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