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.