Plastic’s toxic trail: What are other countries doing about chemicals used in these polymers?

The need right now is to simplify plastics towards safety and sustainability through policies promoting the use of fewer and safer chemicals
Bisphenol A molecule and plastic bottles, 3D illustration from iStock
Bisphenol A molecule and plastic bottles, 3D illustration from iStock

At the ongoing negotiations being held under the aegis of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to end plastic pollution across the life cycle, a handful of oil, gas and plastic producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and others are blocking the acceptance of a strong and robust treaty that also addresses the impact of plastic pollution on human health.

Chemicals used in plastics are a key part of the discussion and listed as an obligation. Member states have varying views around this issue. Some strongly support this obligation. Others block it with the rationale that localised national level research may help them arrive at a decision and that they do not have strong opinions about the subject. This issue should be backed by scientific evidence.

A handful of countries have put systems in place to regulate the chemicals that are used in not just manufacturing plastics but all kinds of products. One such regulation is the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation.

REACH is a comprehensive regulatory framework implemented by the European Union (EU) to ensure the safe use of chemicals and to protect human health and the environment.

Under REACH, companies manufacturing or importing chemicals into the EU in quantities of one tonne or more per year are required to register those substances with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The registration process involves providing detailed information about the properties and uses of the chemical, as well as data on its potential hazards and risks.

ECHA evaluates the information submitted by registrants to assess the hazards and risks associated with the registered chemicals. If concerns arise regarding the safety of a substance, further testing or risk management measures may be required.

Certain chemicals of very high concern (SVHC), such as carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants, may be subject to authorization under REACH. Companies must obtain authorisation from ECHA to use or place these substances on the market, and their use may be restricted or phased out if safer alternatives are available. REACH also empowers the EU to impose restrictions on the manufacturing, placing on the market, or use of certain hazardous chemicals if they pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.

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Other countries have also notified regulations to regulate the use of chemicals including by the plastic industry.While a few are as comprehensive as EU’s REACH, they do share some similarities in terms of their objectives and provisions:

Country Regulation Summary
Korea K-REACH Requires the registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemical substances manufactured or imported into South Korea.
China China-REACH Measures for the Environmental Management of New Chemical Substances (MEP Order No. 7) regulates the registration and evaluation of new chemical substances in China.
Taiwan Toxic Chemical Substances Control Act (TCSCA) Regulates the manufacture, import, sale, and use of toxic chemical substances in Taiwan.
Japan Chemical Substances Control Law (CSCL) Requires the registration and evaluation of chemical substances manufactured or imported into Japan.
Australia Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (formerly NICNAS) Regulates the introduction of industrial chemicals into Australia.
Canada Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) Provides the framework for regulating toxic substances and other pollutants in Canada.
United States of America Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Regulates the manufacture, import, processing, distribution, and use of chemical substances.

India does not have a regulation identical to the European Union’s REACH regulation. However, India does have laws and regulations governing the registration, evaluation, and use of chemicals, albeit in different forms and under different authorities.

The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals (MSIHC) Rules, 1989: These rules regulate the manufacture, storage, import and export of hazardous chemicals in India. They require the registration of hazardous chemicals with the relevant authorities and mandate safety measures to prevent accidents and minimize environmental and health risks.

The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS): BIS sets standards for various products, including chemicals, to ensure their quality, safety, and performance. While BIS standards may not directly mirror the scope of REACH, they contribute to chemical safety and regulatory compliance in India. BIS should have mechanisms where new chemicals that are introduced in the market to be used by the plastic industry should be registered and classified as hazardous or non-hazardous.

Labelling mechanism should also be developed where the consumers of products packaged in plastics should be aware of the chemicals used and their potential impact on human health.

At the national level, India needs a policy that regulates the manufacturing industry using chemicals for production, especially plastics. Standards for plastic used in food contact applications are notified in India but with the absence of reporting and monitoring mechanisms.

Standards for recycling plastics exists but are ancient and need to be revisited. The standards should also take into account the kinds of chemicals that can be used for manufacturing recycled plastic products.

Transparency is the key ingredient in the chemicals space. The non-disclosure of chemicals under the garb of trade secrets needs to be stopped and may need the support of experts in the intellectual property rights domain.

At a global scale, we need to advocate for a comprehensive and efficient regulation of plastic chemicals, emphasising the need for a hazard- and group-based approach to identify and prioritise chemicals of concern. We also need to stress the importance of transparency in disclosing the chemical composition of plastics to close data gaps, enhance management, and promote accountability across value chains.

The need right now is to simplify plastics towards safety and sustainability through policies promoting the use of fewer and safer chemicals. Finally, building technical, institutional, and communication capacity in public and private sectors to manage plastic chemicals effectively and foster innovation.

This is the fifth in a 5-part series. Read the first, secondthird and fourth parts here.

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