Monday, 13 July 2015

Helsinki Chemicals Forum 2015 and SusChem

Every year since 2009 in late spring, a meeting takes place in Helsinki that is of major relevance to chemicals manufacturers and their customers. And not just those whose businesses operate mainly in Europe.  The annual Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF) is hosted by the European Chemicals Agency, a body which was set up by the European Commission to manage the ongoing implementation of the EU's Regulation, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals legislation (REACH). SusChem board member Prof Rodney Townsend is a regular presenter at the meeting and here he reports on the 2015 meeting for SusChem News.

This year the Helsinki Chemicals Forum met at the end of May. All of the five main discussion topics had very much in mind the stated  aspiration of the planned 2020 World Summit on Sustainable Development, which is to achieve by 2020 a minimisation of 'the adverse effects of man-made chemicals on human health and the environment'.  An emphasis that ran through the whole meeting was the proposed Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and USA and what the implications of this might be in terms of harmonisation of regulations for chemicals between the two trading areas.

Dr Klaus Berend from the European Commission’s DG Growth is currently advising the TTIP negotiators regarding REACH-related issues. He gave a summary of the current state of negotiations to the HCF participants and emphasised that under TTIP, neither the EU nor the USA will lower current safety standards.  Indeed, both parties will maintain their right to continue to raise them, but for the TTIP to work, harmonisation of current legislative policies is essential.  A further key issue is that neither party will impose their system on the other.  These negotiation principles have important implications for chemicals manufacturers as they seek to develop more sustainable products, whether their markets are primarily in the EU or USA or span both current trading areas.

SusChem is by its very nature highly committed to sustainable development.  Similarly, implementation of and changes in REACH regulations, or their equivalents in the USA, are critically important to any company committed to sustainable innovation.

SusChem was represented at the HCF meeting by myself (second left above) and Erwin Annys, Director of REACH Chemicals Policy at Cefic (centre above), also attended.  Erwin and I were both directly involved in the fifth Panel Discussion topic, entitled ‘Green Chemistry and Engineering – a Fundamental Breakthrough?’  The Panel discussed the basic tenets of the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry which were first enunciated nearly a quarter of a century ago by Paul Anastas, who currently works for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Is Green chemistry sustainable?
The Panel and audience (which added its thoughts via tweets and texts) concluded that it was time to review the Twelve Principles because their focus is almost wholly on the activities of chemists and not on the manufacturing process as a whole.

Specifically the following points were made during the discussion:
  • 'Green chemistry' is not the same as 'green chemicals'.  This may seem an obvious point, but the Panel felt that it was not one which legislators always appreciated.  It was noted that current legislation in the USA emphasises just chemicals in final products rather than looking holistically at the sustainable manufacturing system.  See for example: and
  • Although the environmental imperative is the most critical factor in considering sustainable product design, no future process will be truly sustainable if it is not also societally beneficial and economically viable.  This is a key part of SusChem’s 2020 Strategy and also underpins the Europe 2020 growth strategy.  It is for this reason that SusChem prefers not to present ‘green chemistry’ as the answer per se.
  • This holistic thinking must extend along whole value chains; what might seem ideal at one point in the chain may have major implications further along the value chain. This is also central to SusChem’s strategic approach.
  • In the light of the recent EU Circular Economy initiative there is a strong need for a rethink issues related to waste disposal and re-use. In particular, Principle 1, which just states: 'It is better to prevent waste than to treat it or clean up waste chemicals', needs a major overhaul.
The general conclusion that was drawn at the HCF was that the time is overdue to update the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry.  How this should be done and who should do it is not yet entirely clear, but that it should be done is crystal clear.

In line with movements in global scientific and technological developments, holistic thinking across all disciplinary barriers must proceed apace, especially in the light of the enormous changes and opportunities implicit in the coupling of intelligent computing with 'big data'. This matter will be the subject of a further blog article in the near future.

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