Chemicals management

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Chemical Industry
Source: Ian Brodie /

The German Environment Agency sees the main aim of chemicals management to be how society can benefit from chemicals without negative impacts on our environment and health. However, the complex interaction of many different stakeholders and instruments will determine whether this seemingly clear aim is achieved.

How will we achieve the 2020 goal?

Global trends indicate growth in the production and use of ever more chemicals in ever more diverse fields of application and goods. As a result, there have been calls for responsible chemicals management worldwide. At the same time the chemical industry is developing new focus areas in emerging economies beyond the traditional industrial regions, also serving rapidly growing consumer markets.

This is another reason that the coming years will be a decisive phase for chemicals management. The "2020 goal" for chemicals management worldwide, first adopted in 2002 at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg and since confirmed and endorsed by various international bodies, is that chemicals must be managed in all phases of their life cycle to minimize significant adverse effects on human health and the environment by 2020.

Despite the progress made in many areas, the German Environment Agency considers it urgent that all the stakeholders must move forward with greater resolve and more consistent orientation towards achieving this overarching common goal. If this goal is to be achieved and sustained around the world, suitable instruments in chemicals management must be established, disseminated and further developed also after 2020. The instruments and requirements which exist but have not yet been adequately implemented on a broader scale include:

  • The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, SAICM, whose current mandate ends in 2020 but whose unique multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder focus will be significant for the envisaged follow-up platform after 2020;
  • Binding international conventions such as the conventions adopted in Basel (on hazardous chemicals) Rotterdam (with information requirements on exported hazardous chemicals), Stockholm (on persistent organic pollutants, POPs) and Minamata (on mercury);
  • Internationally accepted tools for the testing, evaluation and management of chemicals, which have been developed and provided to a large extent by the OECD and its member countries; for the scope beyond the OECD, the Inter-Organisation Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) in particular provides broad-ranging support to emerging and developing countries, and an important basis for any chemicals management is the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) developed under the auspices of the United Nations;
  • Significant regional normative instruments such as the European regulations on chemicals (REACH), plant protection products or biocides, as well as many other (national) legal provisions.

The German Environment Agency believes it will take even more decisive steps to achieve the 2020 goal. Bringing the measures in chemicals management – both the binding and the many voluntary ones – into line requires a comprehensive strategy for sustainable chemistry which provides guidance with a future-proof orientation for companies, civil society and public authorities involved in the chemicals sector. Such an overarching strategy requires a broad-based agreement of all the players on many of its specific aspects and suitable indicators.

The necessity for such a strategy becomes even clearer in consideration of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which the international community formulated in the follow-up to the Rio Summit and adopted in September 2015 as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Firstly, SDG target 12.4 re-addresses the familiar 2020 goal "to achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment" (by 2020). Furthermore, in the context of the 2030 Agenda, chemicals management plays important direct or implicit roles in numerous aspects of sustainable development whose significance is hard to overestimate. Many solutions are heavily dependent on answers from the chemicals sector, for example in the fight against poverty, hunger, and climate change, and in the safeguarding of health, hygiene, food supply, clean water, clean energy supply and many other societal needs and challenges. If the chemicals industry and chemicals management adhere to a comprehensive sustainable chemistry scheme, these solutions will also recognise the boundaries of the planet.

It is remarkable in consideration of SDG 17 (global partnerships) that transparency and cooperation among stakeholders are often key to finding effective solutions. Such cooperative approaches are major elements of the SAICM and a universal concept for sustainable chemistry. The independent International Sustainable Chemistry Centre ISC3 represents an initiative by Germany to launch an institution with an international network ISCnet which seeks to promote and disseminate the idea of sustainable chemistry worldwide.

The International Chemicals Management Section (IV 1.1) at the German Environment Agency acts as the German National Focal Point to the Stockholm Convention and SAICM and addresses the work and development needs outlined above through own activities and a number of Environmental Research Plan projects, also in close cooperation with the Federal Environment Ministry (BMUB ).

The ultimate question which must be answered concerning the production and use of chemicals is what benefits and risks for society may result. Policy makers must weigh the economic, social and ecological arguments when considering measures to implement responsible chemicals management which are appropriate and can effectively reach the above targets. The German Environment Agency is responsible for determining through scientific methods what the actual boundaries of the environment are and to draw up suitable protective measures. In cases where this is not yet possible, safety fences which are based on the precautionary principle and best available knowledge are required.

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