What is sustainable chemistry and why do we need it?

Sustainable chemistry is not yet a clearly defined term. However, it could be essential in creating the Strategic Approach and Sound Management of Chemicals (SAICM) and Waste beyond 2020. 

We were invited to give a statement about the concept of sustainable chemistry during a dinner workshop “Towards a common understanding of sustainable chemistry” hosted by the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre on the 29th of September in Bangkok. We are currently in Bangkok to participate at the third meeting of the Intersessional Process considering SAICM and Waste beyond 2020.

Why do we have to act? A few figures

  • 97 % of children tested in frame of a study by the German Environment Agency show residues of plastic byproducts in their bodies, such as Phthalates and PFOA. Phthalates is suspected to disrupt the hormone system and PFOA is toxic to the liver.
  • A Canadian study shows that women working in the plastic industry have 5 times higher risk of developing breast cancer.
  • The International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics warned: Globally children are born pre-polluted – with a range of 50 to 200 harmful chemicals in their bodies.

Hazardous chemicals have a huge impact on health and environment worldwide. This is why it is important to evaluate all possible tools to address these challenges. Sustainable chemistry might be one of them. So far, sustainable chemistry is a versatile concept, most frequently associated with efforts to achieve resource efficiency. To be considered as a potential tool for improving the heavy problems the world faces with toxic substances, we need a link between sustainable chemistry and hazardous reduction as well as a clear definition of what sustainable chemistry means. Fully defined, sustainable chemistry could address resource efficiency, social and economic effects and hazard reduction. From our perspective the baseline of the concept of sustainable chemistry must be “prevention first”. This includes hazard and risk reduction based on the precautionary principle approach, giving priority to non-chemical alternatives.

At its best, sustainable chemistry could transform the entire industry. To achieve this, we need transparency of information, to phase out and substitute hazardous chemicals and so ensuring environmental protection, consumer and occupational health and safety. This concept needs to be clearly defined in order to prevent greenwashing.

We highlighted that it is unlikely that a transformation in the chemicals sector will happen on a voluntary basis. Strict regulation is necessary to support this transformation. This is were SAICM can play a crucial role.

Here you can find our and IPEN’s position on sustainable chemistry and our recommendations.