Amsterdam, 18 October 2019. Plastics must also comply with the rules for chemical substances. Environmental organizations have stated this in a joint statement that calls on the European Commission to no longer exempt plastics from the rules on the registration of chemical substances under REACH. This is the only way to assess the safety of plastics. As the Plastic Soup Foundation, we have also signed this statement.
Polymers excluded from REACH
Plastics consist of one or more polymers and complex composition of all kinds of fillers, chemicals (such as plasticizers and flame retardants), stabilizers and dyes. In order to be able to assess the safety of plastics, there must be an obligation to register not only the individual building blocks (monomers) but also the long chains (polymers) within the framework of REACH. Since the establishment of REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and restriction of CHemicals) twelve years ago, polymers have been exempt from the registration and assessment obligation. Monomers (the building blocks of polymers) do have to be registered. And that is strange, because the properties of a polymer are very different from those of a monomer, especially in terms of degradability. Long chains are generally poorly biodegradable, while a monomer is quickly biodegradable.
The risks of polymers must be assessed
Only after approval by REACH can a manufacturer put his product on the market. Due to the exception of polymers, in short, no type of plastic needs to be assessed for safety. This exception is based on two reasons: there are so many different polymers that registration is impracticable and most polymers were not considered unsafe twelve years ago. It is mainly because of our daily exposure to plastics, the increasing production of plastics and the increasing concerns of scientists about environmental and health consequences that the call to also assess the risks of polymers are now being heard everywhere.
The environmental organizations, including the Plastic Soup Foundation, state that REACH is based on the precautionary principle and it is up to the chemical industry to demonstrate that plastics are safe to use. Currently, the safety sheets submitted to under the REACH procedure do state that a substance is a polymer, but there is no need to provide proof of its safety. The environmental organizations propose to use the term ‘polymer system’. In that case, it is not necessary to assess each polymer separately, which would indeed be impractical, but rather polymer groups (polymers with similar properties). The European Commission may amend the REACH regulations.
Six Classes Approach
The registration in REACH for polymers will have to meet the same conditions as the registration of chemical substances. Unfortunately, however, the registration and evaluation of chemicals are also inadequate. Thousands of chemicals are used in plastic products that we are exposed to daily. These substances give plastic the desired properties, but some are suspected of being harmful to health. Besides, the potential harmfulness of many chemicals has not been sufficiently investigated. There are drawbacks to the current procedure. After all, it takes years to examine one substance. Another disadvantage is that when a certain substance is banned (such as BPA-A), it is replaced by industry by a substance with similar properties that are not yet banned (such as BPB-S). It is, therefore, useful to distinguish between groups of harmful chemicals and to base policy on this. Professor Alene Blum of Green Science Policy Institute, Berkely (California) has developed the six class approach. Substances from all these six groups are also used in plastic products. More information about this approach can be found on SixClasses.org in the form of a video per group of chemicals. Professor Blum also explained the approach at the Plastic Health Summit held in Amsterdam on 3 October. You can watch it here!
Illustration: impression of a polymer
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