Chemicals and technology assessment
Chemicals and technologies perform key functions in our society – for example, in the fields of electronics, textiles and packaging. They also make a crucial contribution to sustainable economic activity in areas such as the manufacture of energy-saving products. At the same time, high-risk chemicals and technologies are still being used in many fields, despite the fact that better alternatives are now available. The usefulness of problematic substances and new technologies must be examined and weighed against the risks to people and the environment.
Sustainable chemistry and the European legal framework for chemicals and products
Chemicals should be used in ways that conserve materials and resources and are socially and environmentally acceptable. The concept of “sustainable chemistry” provides the framework for this approach. In the EU, the REACH chemicals regulation provides a further set of demanding rules. Chemical substances cannot be manufactured or sold in large quantities in the EU unless they are registered under REACH. REACH also regulates the authorisation of chemicals that give particular cause for concern, the aim being to replace these with other substances. The RoHS Directive, which restricts the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, operates in a similar way. Under REACH consumers now have the right to be informed about particularly problematic substances in products.
New technologies – opportunity or risk?
Many new technologies also need to be scrutinised. This applies in particular to modern enabling technologies such as digitalisation and additive manufacturing or 3D printing. These technologies often depend on the use of new materials that may significantly influence the sustainability of the technology. In many cases, such as in the use of nanomaterials, the impacts on humans and the environment have not yet been sufficiently explored. Notwithstanding all the benefits associated with the new functions and improved properties of nano-based substances, undesirable side effects must be carefully examined and appropriately regulated. Genome editing is another field in which unbiased consideration of possible advantages and disadvantages is essential if this new genetic engineering technique is to be used responsibly.
Evaluating chemicals and technologies
The Oeko-Institut addresses the safe use of chemical substances and new technologies at many levels. Its researchers work on chemicals legislation and explore ways of replacing problematic substances – in the light of the REACH regulation, the RoHS Directive and the ELV Directive on end-of-life vehicles. They also study the requirements for the sustainable use of new materials and technical processes and apply their expertise to the development of new products and processes. As a result of their involvement in development activities they are able to encourage consideration of sustainability aspects at an early stage in areas such as plastics and electronics.
Methodological expertise: Technology assessment
EU impact assessment
EU impact assessments are carried out systematically to identify the economic, social and environmental impacts of policy measures. The findings provide decision-makers with guidance on whether there is a need for EU action or whether a proposed measure requires further amendment. The Oeko-Institut produces impact assessments on the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, for example.
EU website on impact assessment
Cost-benefit analysis (CBA)
Cost–benefit analysis (CBA) is a systematic quantitative evaluation of a project or environmental policy whose purpose is to ascertain to what extent it serves the interests of society. A CBA identifies strengths (benefits) and weaknesses (costs), irrespective of individual stakeholder interests, as a basis for weighing up various future options, e.g. for infrastructure projects, or for comparing innovative with conventional technologies.
Leitfaden zur Nutzen-Kosten-Abschätzung umweltrelevanter Effekte in der Gesetzesfolgenabschätzung (Guidelines on Cost-Benefit Analysis of Environmental Effects in the Context of Regulatory Impact Assessment)
Methodology for the ecodesign of energy-related products (MEErP) / EcoReport tool
As part of the development or review of the EU’s product-specific regulatory provisions on ecodesign or energy labelling, the Oeko-Institut produces preparatory studies in accordance with a specific methodology. The reports must always cover the following topics: Scope, Markets, Users, Technologies, Environment, Economics, and Scenarios, as well as specific pre-defined aspects of these categories. The Excel-based EcoReport tool is used to calculate environmental and economic scenarios.
Scientific monitoring of the implementation of the Ecodesign Directive
The Oeko-Institut applies the concept of scientific foresight in its innovation and technology analyses. The method was established by the European Parliament for the purpose of strategic forecasting and focuses on future technology-driven developments and their impacts on society, the economy and the environment. Horizon Scanning, 360° Envisioning, Scenario Development and Sense-making are some of the methods applied in this context.
Sample project: Towards Scientific Foresight in the European Parliament
Stakeholder consultation is a structured, rules-based process by which interest groups (known as stakeholders) can put forward their views during the preparation of policy initiatives or decisions, such as the drafting or review of legislation. The Oeko-Institut holds stakeholder consultations on topics such as assessment of exemption applications under the RoHS and ELV Directives and on regulatory proposals relating to the EU Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Directives.
European Commission Guidelines on Stakeholder Consultation
SWOT analysis is a strategic planning technique used to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relating to products, projects or business processes. The Oeko-Institut uses SWOT analysis to evaluate product portfolios in the context of Product Sustainability Assessment (PROSA), for example. This includes integrated assessment of internal (economic) strengths and weaknesses and external (social and environmental) opportunities and risks as a basis for identifying solutions and strategic optimisation potential.
Technology assessment (TA) / Technology impact assessment (TIA)
The Oeko-Institut utilises a comprehensive methodological toolkit in order to forecast, analyse and assess the environmental impacts of new or future technologies. This involves systematically identifying the effects of complex technological systems and materials in their application context as a basis for developing policy recommendations (e.g. regulation, application of the precautionary principle, ecodesign, innovation strategies).
Methodological expertise: Chemicals management
Substitution and alternatives assessment
Regulated chemicals are often replaced by other equally hazardous substances – hardly a meaningful substitution, as it simply perpetuates the problem. The Oeko-Institut’s substitution and alternatives assessment aims to address this situation by looking at a range of substances, systematically analysing their harmful properties and determining likely exposure. Through the substitution of substances or processes, risks can be avoided or minimised as far as possible.
Exposure assessment focuses on the interface between the environment containing a contaminant of interest and the human organism and measures the effects. A branch of toxicology, it is a prerequisite to risk assessment, in that it ascertains how much of a contaminant can be absorbed and, on this basis, identifies effective exposure limits. The Oeko-Institut utilises this technique in human health toxicological and ecotoxicological assessments of substances and in evaluating and recommending possible substitutes.
Human health and ecotoxicological substance evaluation
Human health and ecotoxicological substance evaluation focuses on the properties of hazardous substances (e.g. corrosivity) and the possible exposure of humans and the environment to these substances. It looks at their chemical properties in relation to exposure and assesses possible risks. The Oeko-Institut applies this method, for example, to assess and recommend possible substitutes and to develop award criteria for ecolabels that avoid the use of hazardous substances.
In order to measure hazardous substances that may be present in the workplace or in products, the Oeko-Institut researchers calculate MEG equivalents by comparing the harmfulness of a substance with a reference substance, namely monoethylene glycol (MEG). The methodology is based on the categorisation of substances according to the CLP Regulation, which establishes a standardised system for the EU-wide classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures. A standard set of hazard pictograms is used to draw attention to substances’ harmful properties.
REACH Radar: Screening for SVHCs
Under the REACH Regulation, substances of very high concern (SVHCs) are placed on the Candidate List and published EU-wide. REACH Radar is a simple Excel-based tool, developed by the Oeko-Institut, which includes the updated versions of this and other substance lists. By using REACH Radar, companies can quickly ascertain whether they utilise any substances of very high concern (SVHCs) and, on this basis, identify substitutes.