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Responsible chemicals management taking a stand on the sustainability agenda

Published 27th Jan 21 - by ashleyking

By Jess Mutton (Business Development & Project Manager) and Sahar Farzadnia (Standards Officer) at GECA

Move out of the way; responsible chemicals management has quite a bit to say this year!

There is no denying that there is a growing demand for businesses, industries, governments, and consumers to commit to various sustainable consumption and production matters. In particular, there has been a spotlight on mitigating climate change with embodied carbon and energy efficiency practices, further improving resource efficiency via a circular economy, and improving workers’ rights by eradicating modern slavery.

Yet, as many of us know, it does not stop there. In GECA’s conversations with government and various stakeholders, one sustainability area that is becoming increasingly important is the responsible use of industrial chemicals in manufacturing. This is a space to watch throughout 2021 with three key reasons why it’s a timely opportunity for your supply chains to act now.

  1. Demand for better manufacturing practices is increasing. The rise of circular economy thinking means restricting the use of certain chemicals that impact the longevity, recyclability or recovery of materials, such as plastics and synthetic polymers.  Also, industrial chemical emissions can contribute to climate change; and damaging substances can threaten the health of our biodiversity and ecosystems in which we heavily rely on to live, breathe, and consume.
  2.  In 2015, Australian environment ministers agreed to establish a national standard to manage the environmental risks of industrial chemicals and a draft National Standard was developed. The Industrial Chemicals Environment Management (Register) Bill (ICEMR) 2020 was then introduced to the Australian Parliament on 3 December 2020. Watch this space!
  3. Coming up in July 2021, the Fifth Session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) will take place that includes updates from the periodic reviews of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which is a policy framework to promote chemical safety around the world.

But what’s all the fuss about? The use of chemicals in manufacturing can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. Positive outcomes include control of disease or agricultural productivity. However, certain substances or compound classes, including carcinogens, have been identified as particularly harmful to the environment and our health.

Manufacturing processes can result in significant amounts of chemical pollutants, including per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx), phthalates, alkylphenolethoxylates and chlorophenols. For example, PFAS, including its two subclasses, PFOA and PFOS, are seen as contaminants to aquatic ecosystems because they do not break down naturally in the environment. When they enter waterways, they can accumulate in the bodies of aquatic organisms and even in humans. There is evidence of adverse health effects related to the presences of PFAS in the body.

The use of biocides and preservatives, such as methylisothiazolinones in cosmetic products has been associated with skin sensitisation and allergic reaction. Some biocides can even enhance bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics and pose a long-term threat to wildlife and human health.

High levels of nitrogen dioxide are harmful to vegetation – damaging foliage, decreasing growth, or reducing crop yields. And the use of toxic heavy metals and their compounds such as mercury, arsenic, selenium, cobalt, tin, and antimony may be detrimental to the health of manufacturing staff and users of the finished product.

The circularity and carbon footprint of products are also of great concern when it comes to industrial chemicals. The petrochemical industry uses fossil fuels both as raw materials, and to provide the energy to upgrade low-value chemicals into higher-value ones, for example, different types of plastics and polymers. This leads to the production of substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

It is also notable that many substances of concern, or their compounds, are widely used in a range of consumer products. For instance, PFAS can be found in food packaging, cosmetic products, stain-proof rugs and water-proof textiles, paints and varnishes, coatings and rubber products. We must understand how these chemicals are used across the industry and what their level of impact is.

So, what now? Australian industries must continually engage in the global dialogue on sustainability trends, and with the work the Australian Government is doing to strengthen chemicals management laws, regulation, controls, and standards. These will also inform GECA’s standards review process. Australian businesses are then well-informed, supported, and remain relevant and competitive in a globally consumer-driven market.

At GECA, we have over 1000 products and services certified against our standards, which consider better chemicals management processes to protect human health and the environment, alongside the delivery of high-quality products and services. And while we are pleased to see supply chains outside of our certification scheme making positive change on targeted sustainability matters, we are looking forward to seeing the responsible use of chemicals become a larger part of the sustainability discussions, so that a holistic approach to sustainable production and consumption is achieved.

If you are interested in learning more about responsible chemicals management or have strong skills in this area and would like to join GECA’s Technical Advisory Groups for the development of our standards, please contact us at [email protected].