Green chemistry: how ECHA can help European industry to use safer chemicals

Bjorn Hansen, the Executive Director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), spoke to Innovation News Network about how the agency is working to help European industry substitute existing chemicals for safer substances.

AS an agency of the European Union, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) manages the administrative and technical aspects of the implementation of the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation. ECHA is the driving force amongst regulatory authorities in implementing the EU’s chemicals legislation.
Located in Helsinki, Finland, ECHA also helps companies to comply with the legislation, advances the safe use of chemicals, provides information on chemicals and addresses chemicals of concern.

Innovation News Network spoke to ECHA’s Executive Director, Bjorn Hansen, about how ECHA is working to help European industry substitute existing chemicals for safer substances, and the challenges that such a focus on green chemistry entails – from both the regulatory and industry points of view.

What would you say are the biggest challenges when it comes to the chemical industry and replacing substances of concern with safer substances and technologies?

There is a division of competences in Europe today when it comes to chemicals in terms of who is good at what. Of course, one of industry’s strengths lies in its ability to develop an in-depth understanding of what a certain chemical or substance can do in terms of its desired functionality. Industry is also competent in environmental safety and health because this is a necessity. However, it is clear that authorities, particularly an authority like ECHA, have a stronger role to play here if for no other reason than the fact that we have a much larger capacity to solely focus on this area. As such, from the authorities’ perspective, there is a need for a broader competence in environmental safety and health.

In light of this, there are perhaps two main challenges. The first is something that faces all the stakeholders, while the second is more industry-specific. Regarding the former, the challenge refers to being able to build up enough knowledge around all chemicals, including those which are still to be designed, so that we can predict with reasonable certainty any negative environmental and health-related impacts.

There is, of course, an ever-lasting knowledge gap, but authorities and agencies like ECHA can play a very crucial role in gathering the information that can go some way to filling it. Nevertheless, this is also a challenge for industry, because it has an obligation to ensure safety which means that it must also collect data. And while industry does do this, a proper collaboration between industry and the authorities would mean that not only would the data be collected in a more efficient manner, but it would also be possible to then transform that information into usable knowledge on health and safety.

From an in industry perspective, companies make money by designing new chemicals which improve on the functionalities of existing ones, or by finding new functionalities for existing chemicals. For industry, then, a significant challenge is to find chemicals which do this whilst also being safer, and that is something that is made even more difficult by the fact that, perhaps understandably, each company looks at it from their own perspective and doesn’t like to share information. This competition aspect is a hindrance and, moreover, results in an even more significant challenge for those companies on the use side of a chemical than it does on the environment and health side, where we have spent 50 years breaking down the walls between companies to get to the point where it is widely accepted that health and safety data is of a collective value, transcending any perceived value for any one company.

Are there any specific activities within ECHA designed to overcome these issues? And what are your hopes for the Strategy to promote substitution to safer chemicals through innovation?

The strategy is very forward-looking in the sense that we see a need for authorities such as ECHA to actively promote substitution. Although there is no legal obligation for us – or indeed industry – to do so, we are nevertheless trying to work in that direction.
In addition to this strategy, we are also working to establish a better knowledge base in order to eventually be able to better protect against the negative environmental and health-related impacts of chemicals. Of course, adherence to REACH and checking the compliance of the data that industry generates is an enormous priority for us, and we are putting a significant amount of effort into that so that we can play our role in generating information that can then eventually be transformed into knowledge.

With regard to the strategy itself, we organise workshops with Member States and their industry actors in an effort to share best practice. From the application for authorisation procedure for chemicals it becomes clear which companies are good at substitution and which are not, and so we are now trying to share best practices amongst all the industry stakeholders so as to build capacity.

In the much longer term, if the Commission and the legislators decide to support that with proper resources then there is the potential for us to evolve into something of a direct advisory body for industry, both with regard to substitution and also in the assessment of the negative environmental and health-related impacts of substitutes. That is not in our current mandate, but is something we are hoping to move towards.

Would you say that enough is being invested on the part of industry in R&D towards substitution?

There is no overview for me to be able to definitively form an answer, but what we do get are snapshots from various areas. For example, we have a snapshot which comes from the chemicals which undergo authorisation, where we see that the mere fact that the Commission decides, after a recommendation from us, to make a chemical subject to authorisation pushes innovation in companies. We see here that the market economy is thus working to boost substitution, but it is a situation in which the authorities, the law, public pressure, and so on play an important role in setting up the conditions under which industry should start looking at substitutes.

If left alone, without any such pressures, then we have observed that less innovation takes place, both in the context of substitution and in the context of the search for new alternatives. Of course, a company has to survive; it has to make profits and it needs to keep its shareholders happy. As such, industry invests where they feel they can maximise their returns, and the fewer rules and framework conditions in place, the more freedom they have. And while a certain degree of freedom is a good thing we must acknowledge that, within this, environmental health and safety is not always their highest priority. As such, we have a big role to play in setting those framework conditions in order to ensure they are optimised.

In terms of REACH, what are the challenges in ensuring substances in the European market have sufficient information on the potential hazards they pose to human health and the environment? Could more be done at the European level to both provide this information, to boost substitution efforts, and to monitor the environmental impacts of chemicals?
There are points to be made here regarding both the core REACH activities and more peripheral areas – although that is not to say that the latter are any less important.

Regarding REACH, European industry has now provided what they feel is compliant information on all substances, and it is now up to us to check that information. In light of a recent debate which was triggered by comments made by a German agency’s assessment, we have considerably enhanced our focus on this. And that is a prerequisite; we must have good compliance data so that the EU’s internal market is one where all chemicals are able to compete on a level playing field. In essence, we are working to establish one of the fundamental factors that makes an efficient economy: the transparency of information and equal access to it.

Outside of that core area, there other things which may also be able to help. For instance, a lot of money is invested in research and development activities both within businesses and with public money. Most of these studies go on to be published in scientific journals, which are very relevant both for substitution in terms of desired functionality, but also in terms of environmental and health-related properties. As such, if we were able to enhance the level of communication between ourselves and the journals (and also the authors of the published papers), then that would also increase the mass of information available and thus significantly increase the knowledge that is made available.

When writing such papers, three or four people from the project team will spend several months putting the material together. If, for instance, they were to also allocate a day for a PhD student to summarise the data contained within that publication and provide it to us in a specific format so that we can ensure it is accessible, then this interface would serve to increase the knowledge base at a much faster rate than we are seeing currently.

Will that become easier moving forwards given that we are seeing an increasing shift towards open access publications, meaning that there will be fewer restrictions on making the data accessible and sharing it with third parties?

Yes, that is a good push from behind and it is certainly to be welcomed. However, from the regulatory perspective we are not always interested in the same things as those working from a scientific perspective, and we therefore need a vehicle which will enable us to articulate those elements that we are really interested in so as to quickly find out whether it is worth reading their publication. The onus for that lies with the scientist, and that is where the editors of the journals can help.

Moving forwards, what do you feel the ECHA’s main role will be when it comes to sustainable chemistry? ECHA’s substitution strategy ‘can only succeed if all concerned parties get involved’ – how do you hope to achieve this?

We are very good at hazard assessment (identifying the properties and defining a safe level of a given chemical from an environmental and health-related perspective); that is our core competence. Moving forwards, if we build on that then it becomes a competence that industry can draw upon in the future; they can use this competency in a predictive way, but they will also be able to ask us what we think of their chemical in order to be able to make a more informed decision on whether or not they should invest in a specific substance which, in their view, could be a great substitute (perhaps with some technological improvements). It is in this sense that I see ECHA playing a crucial role in the future, as it will mean that the speed at which industry is able to determine whether it is worth investing in a substance or not can be speeded up from the environmental and health-related perspective.

Ultimately, that speed is a determining factor for innovation and therefore for the competitiveness of our industry. If we establish a model in Europe whereby all companies are able to compete at the same standard when it comes to health and the environment, meaning that competition no longer centres around determining safety but on finding novel ways of applying the same chemicals, then the level of European competitiveness is increased in terms of its capacity for innovation. Other countries outside of Europe would then eventually follow suit.

Another area where ECHA can play a role is by becoming something of a warehouse of best practices within industry. That could be both in terms of industry strategies or finding alternatives, and these practices could be shared by bringing people together who have similar interests and by bundling their research efforts together so that they can progress faster. Within this, there is also the potential for us to be able to help companies access public money to similarly speed up their activities.

Our future does not lie in putting one chemical or substitute forward over another because, quite simply, we will never have the technical expertise to be able to do so. We can help, however, to spread best practices and by bringing stakeholders together.

Thus, the two central strands of ECHA’s activities will lead us towards a better co-ordination of environmental and health-related data (which we are already actively working on), and towards becoming a facilitator of the sharing of best practices amongst industry stakeholders.

Bjorn Hansen
Executive Director
European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)
Tweet @EU_ECHA

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