At conference, ECHA calls for regulatory coherence, collaboration to achieve green and digital transition


Mar. 07, 2024

Last week, EU chemicals regulator ECHA brought together experts from industry, government, civil society, research, and academia to discuss the future of EU chemicals regulation. Among the topics: stakeholder cooperation in the context of the green and digital transition.

The format: an emphasis on conversations

  • ECHA’s one-day event, titled “Shaping Tomorrow,” was held at the agency’s headquarters in Helsinki, Finland and live-streamed on ECHA’s website. Organized more as a series of conversations, the conference featured talk show-like segments followed by short Q&As with audience participation.
  • The conference was divided into four main parts, an hourlong opening and three themed sessions. The opening included a short video address from Environment Commissioner VIRGINIJUS SINKEVIČIUS, and a keynote by ECHA’s executive director, SHARON MCGUINNESS.
  • The “Collaboration” session, the subject of this article, encompassed three smaller segments – two shorter one-on-one interviews, and a one-hour panel discussion with representatives from EU government, trade associations, and the non-profit sector.
  • The third and fourth sessions – representing the “Science” and “Knowledge” themes of the conference – were each an hour in length and comprised discussions by two other expert panels. AgencyIQ will summarize these other sessions in a subsequent piece.

The first theme: Collaboration

  • During the event’s opening, ECHA Director McGuinness stressed that ECHA, under her leadership, would seek to engage a wider swath of stakeholders, building on the current levels of collaboration, an aim that she said has always been part of ECHA’s core objectives. “We do collaborate, and we have collaborated, and we obviously will continue to collaborate, but I think the difference here is that the collaboration will be broader and more inclusive.”
  • Looking to the future, McGuinness pointed out the importance of her agency’s cooperation with member-state authorities. “We need to be much more engaged with member states because they’re the feet on the ground,” she said, also underscoring that good communication between ECHA and member state-level authorities plays a significant role in the agency’s outreach and effectiveness. “We don’t have the ability to go around Europe and go into every company, so we need to ensure our member states are fully informed and understand. Equally if [member states are] finding things out, they come back to us,” McGuinness said.
  • Referring to the goals of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), she also indicated that ECHA would concentrate more on addressing the needs of small and medium companies (SMEs), which have fewer resources compared to multinational corporations, to comply with the EU’s continually evolving chemical regulatory environment. As an SME, “you may be dealing with 10 different things which are complicated,” she explained, adding that the task is to address those unique needs: “So how do we better present the information to them, how do you explain to somebody in sufficient detail that they know how they can comply?”
  • McGuinness emphasized the importance of working with all stakeholders, and maintaining a balanced, dispassionate perspective. “I think you have to listen to all sides of the discussions; it can be very easy to talk to the people who always agree with you and tell you you’re doing a great job, but it’s much harder to sit in a room with those that don’t always agree with you and hear their perspective,” she said. “We’re listening, we’re hearing, and we are open and balanced in how we make our decisions.”

Collaborating within the EU and internationally

  • The first and second segments of the Collaboration session were dedicated to one-on-one discussions with MARTIN HOJSIK and BOB DIDERICH, European Parliament (EP) vice president and the head of the environment, health, and safety (EHS) division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), respectively. The former spoke at length about the future of chemicals regulation in terms of the legislative successes and failures during the Parliament’s current mandate, while the latter addressed chemicals legislation at a global level in the context of the OECD and international collaboration.
  • Hojsik, a member of EP’s Renew Europe group, highlighted the revision of the regulation on the classification, labeling and packaging of chemicals (CLP) and its inclusion of new hazard classes as an important achievement over the past five years. At the same time, he stressed the need to work further toward implementing more of the European Green Deal, which was introduced at the beginning of the current Commission. In this context, he expressed disappointment about the Commission’s failure to complete its proposal of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation (REACH) revision. “This is still something to do, and I hope we can do that because we really need to make REACH better, future-proof, and really utilize the knowledge that we have,” said Hojsik, adding, “It’s not about more regulation, it’s really about better regulation, streamlining it for better execution.”
  • Asked about how to achieve the remaining Green Deal objectives – balancing the interests of health and safety with economic considerations – in the current atmosphere of skepticism toward the ambition, Hojsik asserted that the recent farmer protests, for example, had little to do with the goals of the Green Deal itself. He sought to illustrate this, stating that “the farmers are protesting against low prices of commodities and high input, we need to help them to replace the expensive inputs, it’s the fact that you have high prices of synthetic fertilizers.” Here, Hojsik seemed to be implying that replacing synthetic fertilizers with less hazardous, natural solutions would lead to a lighter burden for farmers, framing this as a positive outcome that would result from the Green Deal.
  • The EU Parliament vice president also pointed to the Commission’s One Substance, One Assessment (1S1A) initiative as an example of policy being developed that can help lessen the burden on smaller companies while simultaneously meeting the goals of the Green Deal. [see AgencyIQ’s article here for background on 1S1A.] “If you are a small company that came up with this interesting chemical, but you have to have different assessments for different uses, it’s kind of so much bureaucracy.” Streamlining these processes, according to the proposal, should improve transparency and reduce administrative efforts for stakeholders. At the same time, Hojsik pointed to the positive impact that the 1S1A ambition should have on data sharing, thereby reducing animal testing, another objective of the Green Deal.
  • Diderich addressed chemicals regulation in a global context, highlighting what he sees as a trend toward harmonizing chemical procedures, if not regulations themselves, internationally. Asked about the recently adopted Global Framework on Chemicals, he said the initiative is “much better structured” than its predecessor, the strategic approach to international chemicals management (SAICM). He explained that the framework is “more ambitious in its goals” with clearly defined targets and the “level of commitment by countries” is equally “much better.” He indicated that he is optimistic about increasingly more countries implementing legislation for regulating chemicals. While chemical regulations possibly won’t be harmonized globally, he said, more nations are likely to get involved in OECD initiatives to develop the tools needed to implement such rules.

Panel discussion – Collaboration, the green and digital transition, and regulatory coherence

  • DOROTHEE ARNS, director general of the European Association of Chemical Distributors (FECC): Asked what obstacles to the green transition the companies, most of which are SMEs, in her association face, she said that, as downstream users of chemicals, one of their biggest challenges is the amount and complexity of regulations and the burdensome tasks associated with understanding what requirements they entail. In this context, she explained that unlike large multinationals, mom-and-pop shops don’t have the resources to handle all the regulations adequately, nor to manage compliance with them. Second, she stressed that while larger producers of chemicals often have less diverse portfolios to manage and thus a narrower regulatory scope, chemical companies lower down the value chain, like distributors, deal with a wide variety of chemical products. This exposes these firms to many more regulatory frameworks, necessitating more resources to sufficiently understand the rules in all their complexity. Under these circumstances, Arns called for creating “pragmatic” and “cost efficient” solutions, with “roadmaps” providing clear signals of prioritization to prepare for compliance far in advance. She also pointed out the importance of “early engagement in the value chain discussions” as a way of managing regulatory change.
  • FRIDA HÖK, deputy director of International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec): Asked about “what is in it for business to comply with” chemical regulations that “can sometimes seem rather forbidding,” Hök suggested that establishing well-defined regulations for chemicals sends a clear message of predictability and certainty to industry. Further, regulating away – that is, phasing out – the harmful substances and advancing substitution gives a leg up to companies at the forefront of innovation. “We need to also make sure that the industry providing the alternatives – producing an innovative alternative – that they prosper and that they are growing in the EU,” she said.
  • MARCO MENSINK, director general of European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC): Replying to a query about regulatory coherence, Mensik emphasized the need for greater consistency between different EU regulatory frameworks. Specifically, he brought up the example of Chinese products being introduced onto the EU market and the regulatory implications that such actions can have when policymakers are not on the same page. “The Chinese government is building ships on a daily basis that’s going to be made [with] Chinese chemicals, with Chinese materials, with Chinese regulatory parts, and, to be honest, we have no idea how we’re going stop or regulate that,” said Mensik. He continued, “now that’s where the consistency has to come in; you’ll have to bring your trade policy in line with your environment policy, in line with your competition policy.”
  • PETER VAN DER ZANDT, director of Risk Management, ECHA: van der Zandt underscored the collaborative role that ECHA plays in managing chemicals safety, pointing out the close relationship between collaborator and information collector in support of its mandate. Further, he suggested that the agency’s facilitating role serves as an “authorities coordination mechanism,” enabling ECHA to provide insights into this information and provide a better overview to assist the Commission in its regulatory endeavors, such as the Restrictions Roadmap. van der Zandt proposed that ECHA’s support, in turn, helps to enhance overall regulatory transparency and predictability. He also spoke about collaboration in the context of ECHA’s expanding remit, explaining that as the agency is tasked with more regulatory duties (e.g., drinking water and batteries legislation), it will need to expand collaboration to these additional areas of coverage.

To contact the author of this piece, please email Scott Stephens ( [email protected]).

To contact the editor of this piece, please email Kari Oakes ( [email protected]).

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