U.S. vs. EU: Chemicals substitution faceoff

The Right Chemistry

U.S. vs. EU: Chemicals substitution faceoff

Illustration of green chemistry
ShutterstockBukhavets Mikhail
Replacing tens of thousands of problematic chemicals in global marketplaces is a Herculean effort.

The European Union is far ahead of the United States in terms of legislative mandates that restrict the use or require substitution of highly hazardous chemicals. How well are EU governments and companies doing to develop safer substitutes, and how does their investment of resources and capacity building compare to the U.S.? 

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) commissioned the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts to conduct an assessment of current capacity and needs to enhance support for the informed substitution of substances of very high concern in the EU.

This was stimulated by the ECHA’s desire to improve government and industry practices in identifying, evaluating and adopting safer substitutes in the context of applications for authorization and restriction under the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation, and to more broadly enhance support for the substitution of hazardous chemicals. Our new report provides important lessons for federal, state and local government agencies and showcases areas where the U.S. can be a model.

The disconnect

The September reportImproving the Identification, Evaluation, Adoption and Development of Safer Alternatives (PDF) —  revealed a disconnect between legislation driving industry to substitute toxic chemicals, and the capacity among EU members to support these practices. 

If REACH — the primary chemicals management legislation in the EU — as well as a long list of directives, regulations and member state policies are to support the transition to safer alternatives for substances of very high concern, the following investments are critical:

1. Greater infrastructure in government ("Member State Authorities") capacity

2. R&D investment to support substitution practice

3. Enhanced collaboration within supply chains and among Member State Authorities to address substitution challenges

4. Improved technical resources and assistance.

How does the U.S. fare on these fronts?

Agency resources supporting substitution: Both the EU and the U.S. are confronted by a lack of infrastructure to support the practice of substitution. Despite substitution being near the top of the hierarchy of hazard control, it is not being elevated as a priority risk management option and resources among government authorities in EU and agencies here in the U.S. reflect this reality.

Of the 16 EU Member State Authorities surveyed, half have only one full-time equivalent staff dedicated to substitution. The same meager statistics are seen in the U.S.; most federal agencies other than the EPA have one or two, if any, such staff members.

U.S. companies are substituting hazardous chemicals in product lines and manufacturing processes. However, rather than a federal regulatory driver, the primary pressure is being driven in large part by market demands and chemicals legislation in a handful of states. Federal agencies have responded to these trends with innovative voluntary programs that incentivize companies to adopt safer substitutes, as there are far too many examples of substituting one hazard for another.

For example, the EPA’s Safer Choice Program (formerly Design for the Environment) elevated the use and practice of alternatives assessment and published critical assessments for priority toxics of concern, such as BPA in thermal paper receipts and flame retardants in polyurethane foam, among others.

The EPA’s Safer Choice standard and Safer Chemical Ingredient List are model tools for integrating hazard considerations into purchasing decisions, and guiding the development of safer product formulations by industry product designers. 

However, similar to their European counterparts, U.S. federal agencies remain tremendously under-resourced in their work to promote and support industry substitution efforts. 

Some state agencies are faring better, such as the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, Washington Department of Ecology, California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (part of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), most of which have legislative mandates for evaluating alternatives. However, these state programs are by far the exception rather than the rule.

The implementation of both the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act and California’s Safer Consumer Products regulation may result in an uptick in regulatory drivers for substitution in the U.S.

Yet as seen in the EU, such regulatory drivers need to be coupled with resources for agencies to support the broader range of needs and challenges beyond the regulatory realm.

To move towards a production economy based on using safer chemicals, government agencies will need to continue to play an important non-regulatory role in supporting investment, the facilitation of supply chain collaborations around safer substitutes and technical capacity building. Existing infrastructure and resource needs will undoubtedly limit forward momentum on these fronts.

Supporting investment in safer alternatives

Government plays an essential role in facilitating and supporting innovation development, adoption and diffusion towards safer chemicals. However, our assessment found a clear disconnect between regulatory priorities and technology and research funds that support safer chemistry development and adoption.  

Such a disconnect is also present in the U.S., where there is minimal targeted funding for green chemistry research and development. There is safer chemistry research at the Department of Defense and EPA, and green chemistry-oriented funding at the National Science Foundation (the SusChem program) and Department of Energy (bio-based chemistry funding). Yet these are largely disconnected to priority hazardous chemicals of concern and associated regulatory priorities.

Moreover, major funding initiatives, such as the National Manufacturing Initiative Institutes, make little or no mention of safer chemistry. The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council is undertaking a landscape analysis of federal funding initiatives that are or could be directed towards safer chemistry as a starting point to provide outreach to such agencies.

It is critical that early signals be provided to the marketplace on substances of potential concern to initiate innovation. Research on and development of safer alternatives to priority chemicals of concern needs to occur far in advance of regulatory risk management reviews in order for agencies to justify the restriction of known carcinogens and other highly toxic chemicals.

Enhancing supply-chain collaboration research

The need for enhanced industry and supply-chain engagement on both technical and non-technical aspects of substitution was a key finding in our EU capacity assessment.

Both the EU and the U.S. have notable examples of successful supply-chain engagement initiatives that have provided an opportunity to leverage market forces to accelerate substitution activities. For example, significant gains in supply chain collaborations in the building sector, textiles and footwear sectors as well as healthcare sector have been made in both the EU and the U.S. Yet these efforts need to be scaled and replicated across the range of industry sectors dependent on the use of highly hazardous chemicals. 

Enhancing technical capacity 

Alternatives assessment, and other science policy and technical fields to support chemical substitution, are relatively new. While there is extensive technical knowledge in industry on chemical processes, there may be less (particularly among smaller enterprises) on technical options for substitution, including expertise for alternatives assessments. Expert networks on substitution and alternatives assessment are critical to support regulatory drivers, yet these networks are relatively absent in the EU. 

In the U.S., however, there has been marked growth recently in expert networks on alternatives assessment and related chemical substitution topics. BizNGO, GC3, the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse, professional meetings such as the International Symposium on Alternatives Assessment and sessions within the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry are among the forums for experts within government, industry, NGOs, academia and consulting firms.

Several training programs on alternatives assessment have emerged out of these efforts, including a new OSHA worker training program. There is a clear need and opportunity to expand these expert networks to the EU.  

Moving forward a safer U.S. chemicals agenda

There are many challenges but significant opportunities to accelerate a safer chemicals agenda in Europe and North America. A primary lesson from our review of substitution capacity needs in the EU is that regulations alone are necessary, but insufficient to enhance the evaluation, adoption and diffusion of safer alternatives.

As we remain focused on advancing new regulatory opportunities to phase out highly hazardous chemicals in the U.S., let’s not forget the supplementary programs and capacities needed for these chemicals management regulations to enhance the health of workers, communities and the environment.