Green Chemistry: a Way Out of the Economic Crisis?

« The current global financial crisis that started in 2008 is feeding the debate in Europe on the burden legislations, in particular the REACH Regulation, place on companies manufacturing and using chemicals.
Nevertheless, there is not much attention given to the burden caused by the manufacture and use of chemicals – some known to be toxic, but most poorly studied – not only for the environment and society but also for the economy.

laboratory Glassware on a green background
laboratory Glassware on a green background

Toxics can have a remarkable impact on firms’ competitiveness and their capacity to innovate.

Sooner or later, since the substances of most concern will be regulated and/or phased out, companies using obsolete and hazardous chemistry risk being shut down. Meanwhile, those that have invested in sustainable innovation will be rewarded. The billions of euros that chemical exposure is estimated to cost the EU, in terms of damage to health and the environment, should also be carefully considered.

Here are a few examples:

• 8.3% of all deaths and 5.7% of the total burden of disease worldwide are due to chemical exposure;

• exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals probably costs the European Union €157bn ($209bn) a year in actual health care expenses and lost earning potential. These costs may actually be as high as €270bn ($359bn), or 2% of gross domestic product (GDP)

• 20m tons of plastic marine litter enter the ocean each year. Plastic debris causes substantial economic impacts to coastal economies because of the high costs of removal and disposal to prevent flooding, navigational hazards, detriment to the tourism industry, and ecological destruction. In 2008, marine debris was estimated to have directly cost the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) member economies approximately $1.265bn; and

• the use of toxic chemicals is also highly burdensome to companies that spend huge amounts of economic resources in risk management measures, waste management, payment of sanctions, and overall legislative compliance; the more toxic a chemical is, the stricter the legal requirements. For instance, the costs related to the applications for authorisation to continue using substances of very high concern in the EU range between €5,000 and 55,000. In addition, the industry costs of lobbying competent authorities not to regulate their chemicals is estimated at millions of euros per year. Cefic alone is reported to have spent €6m on lobbying in 2012 and the American Chemistry Council lobbying expenditure, last year, was over $11m.

If chemicals were designed not to be toxic, or so they did not persist or bioaccumulate in the environment, all these costs would be avoided. But why is applying green chemistry principles, when designing chemicals, not the rule, but the exemption?

There are several barriers to the implementation of green chemistry rules as common practice. A few examples are:

• lack of education and experience on green chemistry among chemists and researchers. Chemicals are designed to meet a specific function, not to be safe and sustainable;

• natural human resistance to change together with reluctance to experiment with the unknown and fear of regrettable alternatives;

• technical and administrative restraints;

• lack of regulatory/supply chain pressure and enforcement;

• complex communication along the supply chain relating to the chemicals used and their properties;

• only direct costs are usually considered and these are not seen as an investment;

• research and development costs involved; and

• company policy/mindset and financial restraints (normally related to the size of the company).

Green chemistry is closely linked to the green economy as it helps to safeguard the production sites of the chemical industry and its user industries in the long term, and promotes the creation of jobs and high standards of occupational health and safety, as well as environmental and consumer protection. Furthermore, it stimulates innovative solutions and new market opportunities.

The chemical industry could make an important contribution to sustainable development and make a tidy profit at the same time. Leading chemical companies agree that producing safer chemicals is good for business. A new report by a US-based business advocacy group, evaluating the business and economic value of safer chemistry, demonstrates that safer chemicals are the future for health, safety and business.
Green chemistry can, therefore, lead to improved health and environmental outcomes, but might also point towards an economically and financially viable way out of the economic crisis.

However, there are some important aspects needed, such as:

• a supporting legal framework that identifies the unwanted properties of chemical substances;

• information on substances used in processes and products;

• technical assistance to identify, assess and utilise new chemicals, based on green chemistry principles;

• awareness, information, training and education; and

• economic/financial support and incentives.”

Article from Tatiana Santos, senior chemicals and nanotechnology policy officer, EEB

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