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Substitution plans are a good start — but they’re not enough

Policy

Substitution plans are a good start — but they’re not enough

Substitution of harmful chemicals is part of ChemSec’s DNA. But the EU’s new buzzword concept Substitution Planning is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And more importantly, it will never be able to replace a strict chemicals regulation.

Published on 20 Dec 2023

Substitution planning. Seemingly out of nowhere, these two words started to appear next to each other in various EU documents. Now, they’re the talk of the town.

The EU Commission — in particular DG Grow — seems to be pushing this concept hard. It has even launched a year-long study to find out how it can be used in a regulatory context. Interest seems to be coming from the European Parliament as well, having granted €1.6 million for a pilot project to support businesses with an EU Substitution Centre.

But before we get into what substitution planning actually is, let’s just briefly set the scene: The A in REACH does not function properly. No one is happy with the authorisation procedure as it is today. It’s a headache not only for the EU Commission but also for the companies — especially the frontrunners and alternative providers.

Where do the incentives to make these plans progressive come from?

On one hand, the EU Commission doesn’t want to deal with applications from all companies needing a derogation since this completely floods the system (chromium trioxide, anyone?). On the other hand, if the application is submitted upstream, it’s difficult to get valuable details for each use.

So, the Commission is in somewhat of a binder with the authorisation procedure as it is set up now. This is why they’re after a new and better system. We all are.

The idea behind substitution planning is to make the chemicals regulation more efficient and to reduce the burden on regulators. DG Grow is exploring if the way to do this is to provide derogations from restrictions based on industry-wide substitution plans laid out by the industry stakeholders themselves.

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This may sound like a pretty decent plan. But where do the incentives to make these plans progressive come from? And what stick will the regulators use to make sure companies actually follow through on their substitution plans?

If regulation demands substitution plans but doesn’t give very strong incentives to make them ambitious, and if there are no consequences for companies not sticking to their plans, it may very well just end up creating even more administrative burden for the regulators.

Don’t get us wrong, we support all substitution work, that’s one of ChemSec’s core issues. We’re just not sure incorporating substitution plans into regulation actually promotes chemical substitution.

The EU Commission should stick with its guns and say No to the continued use of hazardous substances

In our view, a substitution plan is something a company needs to comply with regulations. And these plans should be laid out very early, already when a substance is classified or put on the Candidate List or the SIN List. They’re great as long as they’re coupled with strict regulation, but no substitution plan will ever be able to replace an ambitious chemicals regulation.

Parts of the EU Commission claims that this substitution planning framework is a natural progression to a regulatory outcome that could not have gone any other way. But that’s not true. If the authorisation process had worked as intended and applications for derogations had been turned down when safer alternatives were available, things would be different. It would have boosted the market for safer alternatives, created powerful incentives to phase out harmful chemicals, promoted the frontrunners, and so on.

In the end, it all boils down to one thing. The EU Commission should stick with its guns and say No to the continued use of substances that we have decided to phase out.

Substitution planning is great. But an ambitious chemicals regulation is better.