Sustainable Chemicals: past and future initiatives 

In December 2015, the European Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Package to help EU businesses and consumers transition to a stronger and more circular economy where resources are used in a more sustainable way. Sustainable chemicals seek to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used by "closing the loop" of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use to the benefit of the environment and the economy. The ultimate goal is to extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, improving energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Recycling and re-use can be hampered by the presence of certain chemicals. Some chemicals can constitute technical barriers that prevent the recycling of other chemicals hazardous to humans or the environment. A growing number of these are being identified and are becoming subject to restrictions or prohibitions. Chemicals used within urban settings in the EU are regulated by multiple legislations for example, the REACH Regulation (EC/1907/2006), Plant Protection Products Regulation (EC/1107/2009), the Biocides Directive (98/8/EC), and the recent Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (2009/128/EC). The innovation and the development of new products have brought the domain of sustainable chemicals to meet human needs for chemical products and services into focus. Due to this, multiple initiatives have been performed by industry, public authorities and NGOs in this area at national, European and international levels.

CEN and CENELEC set up the Working Group CEN-CLC/BTWG 11 'Sustainable chemicals' (BTWG 11) in response to the European Commission’s Ancillary Action on the ‘Identification of potential needs of standardization for sustainable chemicals from primary and secondary raw materials related to the circular economy action plan’. For the purpose of this ancillary action, the concept of ‘sustainable chemicals’ encompasses the full life cycle and circulation of chemicals and materials, from primary or secondary raw materials to production, product design, labelling, use and recycling or other sustainable forms of end-of-life management. The BTWG11 aims to identify potentially interesting elements, uncover possible gaps, and suggest ways for closing them. It is focussed on the assessment of each stage of the life cycle on how standardisation can contribute to sustainability and supports efforts in Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy. About 1100+ initiatives and standardization activities delivered to date were identified in the areas of:

  • Primary and secondary raw materials (biomass and recyclates quality & sustainability indicators, assessment & thresholds including Life Cycle Assessment approaches).
  • Production/design relating to the way materials/chemicals perform in regard to circular economy (e.g. linking them to water, energy and land use efficiency).
  • Production/processes relating to secondary materials used in processes (biodegradability and compostability measurements).
  • Consumption/labelling covering tools for B2B and B2C communication and claims on sustainability.
  • Recycling/End of Life/Waste Management focussing on areas important in bringing back chemicals back to the loop.

The generic findings of the BTWG 11 include the following:

  • The removal of barriers for the recycling of materials: Developing further standardization/certification around traceability, quality, safety and liability.
  • The need for clear communication (Definition of sustainable chemicals, declaration of content).
  • Design for circularity: New rules need to be developed for both virgin and secondary raw materials in such a way that emphasis is laid on higher levels of material recovery and recyclability (particularly in the case of plastics). Better quality criteria also needs to be put forth so that when products with these materials reach the market, they are trusted by consumers.

Further technical findings of this BTWG 11 can be found here.

A CEN and CENELEC workshop on Sustainable Chemicals will take place on 24th May in Brussels, with the aim of obtaining feedback from stakeholders on the preliminary outcomes and recommendations of the work by BTWG 11. This workshop foresees participation by experts within policy making, public private partnerships, joint undertakings, societal stakeholders, industry, EU associations, representations of municipalities and regions and other standardization organizations, as well as other stakeholders involved actively in the field of chemicals, raw materials, bioplastics, biodegradability, biogas, fertilizers, biomass, agricultural recycling, waste management, recycling, and other areas related to the circular economy and sustainability.  

For more information, please contact Padma KAMATH