Zero Tolerance for Non-Compliance: The Carrot and the Stick

Europe has issued a new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability with potentially far-reaching implications. How feasible are the European Commission's plans, though, and most importantly, what are the practical effects? Various of Royal HaskoningDHV's experts reflect on the Chemicals Strategy's (possible) implications in this series of blog posts. In our second post, Leo van der Biessen discusses the proposed zero tolerance approach.

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Zero tolerance is one of the main tenets of the proposed Chemicals Strategy. That may seem drastic, but also makes sense. The current level of compliance is low. As many as two thirds of files submitted to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) for registration are not fully compliant. 15% of safety data sheets contain information on hazards and instructions for handling substances that is just plain wrong. Furthermore, many stakeholders feel the process of replacing substances of very high concern (SVHC) or minimising their emissions is advancing much too slowly. The management of hazardous substances can and must be improved. To accomplish this, it is necessary to reward compliance with the regulations and to penalise violations. In other words, the carrot and the stick.

Enforcement is the stick, ensuring a level playing field for producers and importers. Approximately 25% of products originating outside the European Union (EU) fail to meet the requirements. While some of these defects are minor, others are much more serious. A prime example of the latter is chrome-tanned leather. This method is cheap and effective, but also dangerous. Heat and moisture can cause the (stable) chromium(III) salts used to oxidise, converting them into the highly toxic chromium(VI). Though extremely undesirable, the practice remains widespread. Chrome-based tanning is much less expensive than many safer alternatives, after all. Basically, ignoring the rules often allows companies to lower costs and offer products at a lower price or more profitably.

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Border control is necessary to prevent undesirable substances from making their way into products. The EU has no choice. It must do so to protect citizens and the environment, but also to achieve its targets for a circular economy. Goods that contain substances prohibited within the EU may be unsuitable for recycling or re-use. The prevention of non-compliance relies on collaboration. The ECHA forum is an example of this. National enforcement bodies create agreements and share their progress in this forum, contributing to the detection of lagging countries and companies. So, that's the stick. What about the carrot? Yes, there's a carrot too. Companies that are guaranteed to be safe and sustainable are more attractive to (some) consumers, even if the products are a bit pricier. Additionally, companies that demonstrably obey the rules will suffer fewer (preventive) inspections. 

While this is the theory, practice is proving less co-operative. Containers of goods enter the EU in enormous numbers daily. Which ones should we inspect? It is possible to design algorithms to help with this. Don't underestimate enforcement's power as a deterrent, though. If (the threat of) inspections can bring the percentage of faulty goods down from 25% to 20%, that's a huge gain. Stricter monitoring is effective. And necessary. Consider the impact of the PFAS group of substances on the construction industry, for instance. More than that, consider all the people who die or become chronically ill due to occupational exposure to carcinogens. There are 100,000 cases in Europe each year. Zero tolerance is an excellent, justified approach to lowering that unacceptable figure. As our legislation is complex enough already, enforcement of existing rules will have more effect than adding new ones. Improved enforcement protects people and the planet and helps us achieve a circular economy. This is a good thing the EU is doing. Let’s get moving, I say!

In October 2020, the European Commission presented its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. This strategy focuses on protecting citizens and the environment and encouraging innovation towards safe, sustainable chemicals. The Commission links its strategy to the EU's equally ambitious Green Deal, an important re-assessment of our society's future approach to raw materials and substances. Striving for zero pollution, zero waste and zero tolerance is the goal. Royal HaskoningDHV's experts reflect on what that means in a series of blog posts. Steven Lemain's previous post discusses zero pollution.


ChemCon interview on enforcement in Europe, with Sylvie Lemoine of CEFIC and Erwin Annys of ECHA.