The recent European Union chemicals strategy for sustainability aims to ensure that chemicals make a positive contribution to society without harming the environment and people’s health. A European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing, published earlier this month, describes key approaches to make chemicals and products safe and sustainable by design, before they enter the market.
Preventing chemical pollution requires a new approach for designing safe and sustainable products
It is possible to make products safer and more sustainable by assessing their performance at the design stage of product development, according to the EEA briefing ‘Delivering chemicals and products that are safe and sustainable by design’. This approach would reduce risks from chemical pollution and support Europe’s transition to a circular and low-carbon economy.
The EEA briefing describes a process that starts by focusing on the functionalities that a product delivers in terms of the service it provides to the customer. At the next stage, product candidates should be assessed and compared for their life cycle effects, including safety, resource use and circularity, greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts on ecosystems. Candidate products often perform unequally across these dimensions so the selection process should include minimum requirements for each dimension as well as a total score for the overall performance.
According to the EEA briefing, making chemical products safe and sustainable by design can be best supported by establishing and using harmonised methodologies and minimum performance requirements against safety and sustainability goals — from product design through to disposal and reuse. Other enabling factors include education and training on such methodologies, funding for safe and sustainable by design approaches, investments in research, and coherent and ambitious chemicals legislation.
Challenges in moving to safe and sustainable by design approaches include the interconnections in chemicals production as well as lock-ins in existing infrastructure for raw materials. Moreover, the education sector would need to start incorporating safety and sustainability aspects into, for example, training on product and material design.
Opportunities to move forward are foreseen under the European Commission’s chemicals strategy for sustainability and the next research and innovation framework, Horizon Europe, which are expected to support the development and uptake of approaches that are safe and sustainable by design. This can be complemented by initiatives taken at national level by industry and public authorities.
For additional information on EU policy on chemicals, see the EU’s chemicals strategy for sustainability towards a toxic-free environment.