Sustainable chemicals – insights into theory and practice

Chemicals are vital for sustainable development. They can facilitate the efficient use of resources and the manufacture of products that in turn can help us to use energy and resources more economically. The manufacture, use and disposal of chemicals and products made from them must not, however, pose a risk to humans, nature or the environment. Chemicals too need to be assessed in terms of sustainability objectives: occupational health and safety, environmental quality, consumer protection. 

The Institute for Applied Ecology has been closely involved in the evaluation and development of criteria for assessing chemicals from a sustainability perspective, and has shaped the implementation process. This has included helping to design the regulatory environment. Constantly at the forefront of these efforts is aim of preventing risks associated with chemicals and optimising their properties to make them successful in environmental, social and economic terms. 

Sustainable chemicals are better for business 

Businesses stand to benefit if they can substitute less problematic chemicals for hazardous or dangerous substances. By doing so they actively enhance occupational health and safety as well as environmental performance within the company – and hence reduce the amount they need to spend in this area. Using renewable resources means that these resources will continue to be available in future for the manufacture and processing of finished chemical products. And last but not least such businesses will actively reduce water, soil and air pollution. 

The European Union REACH Regulation on chemicals poses new challenges to chemicals manufacturers and processors. By 2018 the EU Member States must pass national legislation implementing the provisions laid down by the European Commission on registration and provision of information on hazardous substances. The Institute is helping to establish and develop the regulatory framework for this in liaison with politicians, businesses and consumer protection organisations. 

REACH Guide: working safely with chemicals 

Safe use of chemicals is a key priority of the EU REACH Regulation. Contact with chemical substances is a common occurrence for those who work with them. When humans or the environment come into contact with chemicals, this is referred to as exposure. Exposure may be brief or lasting, a one-off or repeated occurrence. It may happen by a variety of different routes and in different concentrations. Assessing exposure in terms of its impact on human health and the environment is a key component of the Institute’s REACH Guide. 

One of the main objectives of the Guide is to bring the key concepts and methods used to assess exposure within the grasp of non-specialists to enable them to implement REACH more easily in practice. The Guide focuses primarily on how to assess exposure, describe risks and identify measures that need to be taken to ensure that chemicals are handled safely and reliable information on risks is available throughout the supply chain. 

Workshops on implementation of REACH by businesses 

REACH requires users of chemical substances or mixtures to provide Safety Data Sheets containing any information relevant for safety, and to set out exposure scenarios clearly. Since spring 2011, experts at the Institute have been running seminars aimed at enabling users of chemicals to enhance their knowledge of REACH, of Safety Data Sheets and other risk management measures. 

During the seminars participants have the chance to try out practical tools on example cases before applying them in their own firm. Seminars are aimed primarily at employees of small and medium enterprises which manufacture or use mixtures, and at occupational health and safety personnel, environmental officers and managerial staff. 

Making the chemicals sector sustainable – in practice 

Assessment of chemical substances in terms of both the risks and the opportunities they present for sustainable development will become increasingly important in future. In the medium term all hazardous substances will have to be substituted, all chemicals will have to be manufactured sustainably and research into interactions with other substances will need to be carried out. The Institute has worked hard to establish the foundations for doing this. The results of its efforts now need to be translated into practice within the sector. Researchers can assist companies in their efforts to promote the sustainable use of chemicals and implement REACH effectively. 

In liaison with the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), the Institute has produced a Guide on Sustainable Chemicals that sets out “golden rules” for users, including: avoiding substances associated with problems or health hazards, analysing chemicals in mixtures with other substances, promoting renewable resources, researching risks relating to the use of substances, ensuring that high environmental and social standards are applied in manufacturing, avoiding long-distance transport, and exercising vigilance regarding energy and water consumption and waste generation. These and other guidelines will contribute to making the chemical industry more sustainable in future.