Forty-two. This is the average number of receipts I am given each week. I politely say “thank you” and then drop them dismissively into my bag. On Sunday evenings, when I tidy things up to start a new week, I notice them all. There are too many and until recently, the only risk that I saw was financial.
But now I know better. And If I handle around 42 receipts per week, I wonder how many are handled by cashiers. I ask one of the local supermarket workers, Lara, if she knows how many receipts she hands out in a day. “Absolutely no idea”, she says.
I try to do the math myself; If Lara works a standard eight-hour shift, as many of us do, she obviously handles a massive number of receipts daily. Fortunately the EU has agreed to ban the use of the endocrine disruptor Bisphenol A (BPA) in thermal paper till receipts by 2020.
Unfortunately for Lara, the UK is about to leave the EU.
This is one of the many examples of how British workers and British residents in general are protected by EU legislation, in this case, the EU’s chemical law, REACH.
Brexit and chemicals in the UK
However, this is about to change on 30 March 2019, which is when the UK officially will become a “third country”. Even though it’s only about a year and half away, the future of chemicals regulations in the UK is still facing a dangerous level of uncertainty.
So far, the government’s line seems to be that chemicals regulation should not be tied to REACH in a post-Brexit Britain. The UK Minister in charge of chemicals, Thérèse Coffey, believes that it would jeopardise parliamentary sovereignty and the supremacy of UK courts.
“The UK Government is currently proposing to set up a duplicate of the REACH system. This is likely to mean that companies would have to register chemicals in both the UK and in the normal EU REACH system, thus creating extra work”
Moreover, when Coffey’s boss, the Secretary of State for Food and Environment, Michael Gove, was asked in Parliament about how the UK would manage chemicals regulation after Brexit, he simply replied: “Better”. Gove’s response could not demonstrate better the extent to which the UK is underestimating the magnitude of the challenge that it is facing to keep people and the environment protected from tens of thousands of chemicals used in millions of products.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is the piece of legislation which aims to incorporate 40 years of EU law in the UK and avoid legal chaos the day Britain leaves the EU. However, as the environmental organisation Client Earth pointed out, so far the bill has failed to guarantee that EU laws will not be weakened, especially in areas such as environmental policy. Around 80 per cent of environmental protection laws in the UK come from the EU, and their high standards are mainly maintained through EU mechanisms and institutions.
In the specific case of REACH there is no simple way of transferring it into UK law. The UK would therefore need to create a new system, either by copying REACH decisions, or by attempting to build a similar system. However, there are several problematic issues related to the creation of a new regulatory system.
Reasons to be concerned
If the UK leaves REACH, it would have to face the challenge of not having full access to chemical safety information in the main REACH database, which is the most comprehensive database of its kind and covers every single substance placed and used in the EU in quantities over 1 tonne. This is not just about commercial confidentiality but it is also related to the ownership of test data, which often lies with specific companies or consortia rather than the Commission or ECHA. Not having access to this data would make it harder for the UK to assess the safety of chemicals, potentially putting at risk people’s health and the environment.
The UK Government is currently proposing to set up a duplicate of the REACH system, creating separate registration, restriction and authorisation processes. This is likely to mean that companies would have to register chemicals in both the UK and in the normal EU REACH system, at least those looking to export to the EU, thus creating extra work. It would also be impossible for this UK database to provide as much information as the EU version does.
Even more concerning is the threat that if a new UK system was not as quick to control the use of chemicals as the EU system, the UK could become a “dumping ground” for products restricted by REACH. Take BPA in receipts as an example – companies could off-load their stocks on the UK. There are even more serious risks for chemicals that are controlled through REACH’s authorisation procedure, where use could continue in the UK unless it copied the EU’s decisions in this area.
“But it is not just the UN and NGOs advocating keeping the UK in REACH. Just a few weeks ago, the UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) stated that it also wants the UK to remain in REACH”
Ultimately the creation of a new regulatory system is likely to cost many millions of pounds for UK taxpayers and businesses. A fact that carries some irony as the British people were led to believe that one of the many advantages of leaving the EU would be the possibility of saving millions of pounds currently sent to Brussels.
Is it only the government who want the UK to leave REACH?
Early this year, UNEP conducted a visit to the UK to assess the steps taken by the Government. The final report clearly shows worries about the possibility of leaving REACH and the UK’s inadequate assessment of the additional responsibilities to be shouldered by environmental regulators in order to replace the roles of various European Union bodies.
But it is not just the UN and NGOs, such as CHEM Trust, advocating keeping the UK in REACH.
Just a few weeks ago, the UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) stated that it also wants the UK to remain in REACH. Additionally, the Alliance of Chemical Associations (ACA), which represents 1,200 companies that have a combined annual turnover of £28 billion, surveyed their members on how the future economic and regulatory landscape of post-Brexit Britain could affect their businesses. Seventy per cent of companies say that REACH is of vital importance for their businesses to operate.
What we need to push for
What the final Brexit deal will look like is still not decided – and there is increasing pressure from all sections of society to keep the UK in the single market. The pressure is showing tangible results. In a September speech, Theresa May acknowledged for the very first time that the UK wants to have a transition period of around two years after Brexit day when regulations will remain unchanged.
Viewing the different potential post-Brexit scenarios, it is obvious that keeping the UK in REACH is the best option for health and the environment, as well as for the economy. This could be possible if the UK works to include REACH as part of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). This would mean that the main basis for chemicals regulation in the UK would not change, and there would be no chemical-related issues to disrupt the trade of goods with the rest of Europe.
For more on chemicals & Brexit, see: www.chemtrust.org/brexit