Safe and sustainable by design can make the wear-and-tear economy a thing of the past
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Safe and sustainable by design can make the wear-and-tear economy a thing of the past

Changes in the everyday life of European citizens could be remarkable if products on the market were safe and sustainable by design. The recycling industry would boom, as a lot more products would be recycled. The general health would improve, as products would contain no hazardous chemicals. The very fundaments of the market would tremble, as the wear-and-tear economy would turn obsolete.

This is a possible outcome of the work currently being done by the Commission. It has been stated, in both the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) and the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), that a central goal for the Commission is to make the European society and economy more sustainable. One way of doing this is to define criteria for what makes a product safe and sustainable by design.

In March, ChemSec attended a workshop together with other stakeholders, arranged by DG RTD (the Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation), with this exact purpose. The goal is to have an accepted definition by 2022.

“First, and most importantly, ‘safe’ must mean ‘not containing hazardous chemicals'”

ChemSec’s view on the issue is quite straight forward. First, and most importantly, “safe” must mean “not containing hazardous chemicals”. As we are transitioning into a circular economy, this will be increasingly important. It is sometimes said that we should talk about the risk of exposure rather than the hazardous properties of chemicals, but this is a dangerous approach.

“The more circular our economy becomes, the higher the risk we all run of being exposed to hazardous chemicals”

As products are used, reused and recycled, we have no idea where the chemicals end up. The more circular our economy becomes, the higher the risk we all run of being exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Therefore, we should not consider materials and products that contain hazardous chemicals safe and sustainable by design.

Second, criteria for safe and sustainable by design must be simple enough so that they can be adopted in all sectors, but still not lack the teeth to make a difference. There will, of course, be much to consider when creating these criteria, but there is an obvious risk in making them too complex. For example, demanding too much information might render the criteria ineffective, if the requested data is unavailable.

Third, it will be necessary to differentiate between chemicals, materials and products. There are several sustainability aspects that are applicable to materials and products, but not chemicals. For them it might, for example, be reasonable to consider circularity, reparability and durability.

However, all criteria applicable to chemicals should be applicable to materials and products, as they are essentially made out of chemicals.

“If products were to be safe and sustainable by design, it would – in large parts – change the very core of our economy”

The ambitious policy agenda of the Commission holds great promise. If products were to be safe and sustainable by design, it would – in large parts – change the very core of our economy. It would be a good change, for all of us.

DG RTD has a critical responsibility in seeing the political process through, and ChemSec will continue to be an ally in this important endeavor.