Stopping Marine Pollution with The Precautionary Principle

By Anne-Sofie Bäckar 20 June, 2022

Chemical pollution is the most underrated while largely invisible threat to our wellbeing. Anne-Sofie Bäckar from ChemSec shares just how bad it is, what needs to happen & how chem co's performed in their latest ranking

Chemical industry is the 3rd largest global CO2 emitter & accounts for 70% of projected oil increase; urgent call for the ‘precautionary principle’ approach is essential
Incentives to remain the status quo from big businesses & political systems hinders progress; kickstarting a conversation & painting a global vision is required
ChemScore 2021 ranked world's 50 largest chem producers - see who is in the top & bottom; need action from everyone including investors & politicians before it's too late
Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Author: Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Anne-Sofie Bäckar has worked with chemical management for 20 years and for the past 15 years as Executive Director of ChemSec. Under her tenure, ChemSec has grown into a well-respected player within the world of chemicals and developed world-class chemicals management tools such as the SIN List and the Marketplace. Anne-Sofie holds an M.Sc. in chemistry from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Before joining ChemSec, she worked for consumer organizations in Nordic countries. As a scientist, she started her career with biotechnology research on diseases. She is a Member of the Supervisory Board at the Swedish Chemical Inspectorate.
Read more from Anne-Sofie Bäckar →

The Economist hosted the World Ocean Summit on March 1-4, 2022. With more than 100 speakers, the event brought together the cross-section of the ocean community, from businesses to scientists and governments to investors, as well as civil society. It featured 6 industry tacks: shipping, fishing, aquaculture, energy, tourism and plastic. 

After listening in on an interesting discussion during the Summit, “The Invisible Wave: Catalysing a Global Moment to Address Marine Chemical Pollution“, CWR had the opportunity to follow-up with one of the speakers, Anne-Sofie Bäckar of ChemSec. We wanted to learn more about the issue of marine chemical pollution, the best way to tackle it and what needs to happen asap from various stakeholders.

CWR: Thank you, Anne-Sofie, for chatting with us about the very important and relevant topic of marine chemical pollution (MCP). You spoke about MCP at the recent Economist’s World Ocean Summit 2022. To set the scene, can you briefly share some of the key points (the issues, challenges & what needs to happen) from your presentation at the Summit?

Anne-Sofie Backar (ASB): The production of man-made chemicals has increased 50-fold since 1950, and is projected to triple over the next 30 years. Many of these chemicals have harmful properties and are linked to a variety of diseases, like cancer and reduced fertility.

Chems production increased 50x since 1950 & set to triple in next 30 yrs…

…stability of Earth’s systems at risk

The sheer quantity of chemicals that are being released into the environment each year – many of which never break down – has led scientists to conclude that chemical pollution has crossed a planetary boundary. Our planet simply can’t take this anymore, which means that the stability of the Earth’s systems is at risk.

Chemicals, climate, biodiversity, and circular economy are all interlinked issues. The chemical industry is the third largest source of global CO2 emissions. Even worse, this industry accounts for a jaw-dropping 70 percent of the projected oil demand increase until 2026. The oil is used to make products, including plastics and other things we have decided that we need to make our daily life bearable.

Chem industry is 3rd largest source of global CO2 emissions…

Products that – ideally – can at least be recycled. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of all plastics is recycled today, due to the lack of viable alternative recycling technologies, infrastructure, and investment incentives. The remaining 90 percent is incinerated or discarded into nature, eventually making its way into our oceans.

As products break down, they release their toxic chemical content – thousands of individual chemicals – into the environment. Take plastics, for instance: Plastic bags, bottles, and other plastic products polluting the oceans is undoubtedly a physical problem.

But as plastics break down into micro- or nanoparticles, they release a staggering number of some 10,000 different chemical compounds into the water. Marine wildlife suffers and dies because of microplastics and the toxic chemicals in the particles. The cumulative global production of plastics is predicted to triple by 2050 and then there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans.

CWR: An interesting and hopeful solution to combat MCP that you mentioned is the “precautionary principle” Can you tell us what it is and why it is crucial?

ASB: Chemicals have been, and largely continue to be, regulated one substance at a time. This is of course a slow and cumbersome process. The most infuriating aspect of this inefficient approach is that there are so many health problems linked to the hazardous chemicals that people are exposed to daily, for example cancer, obesity, reduced fertility, and intelligence impairment.

 Chems regulated one at a time – too slow…

When a company finds out that a chemical they are using is toxic, it usually substitutes the chemical with a very similar one – almost always with the same harmful properties. This is called regrettable substitution: A costly switch that doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to start restricting chemical groups based on their properties, instead of regulating one chemical at a time. This is the only way for authorities with limited resources to protect the population. Take PFAS, for example – a group of 5,000 persistent chemicals that don’t break down in nature. More than 97 percent of all human beings have PFAS in their bodies, chemicals that can cause cancer, harm reproduction, and impair our immune system.

…need to start restricting by groups & use the precautionary principle, “better safe than sorry”

To tackle this, PFAS and other chemical “families” need to be restricted using a group approach. Even if we don’t know whether all chemicals in the group are in fact harmful, it’s better to use the precautionary principle, best described as “better safe than sorry”. Since chemicals are so infinitely difficult to assess and the potential hazard may be so severe, a precautionary perspective is essential.

CWR: Why has it been so difficult to make progress on the regulations?

ASB: One of the largest barriers in the combat against MCP is the weakness of regulations in all regions. Restrictions and regulations should be used to push innovation of new chemicals towards sustainability. The companies going beyond legal compliance, trying to reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals that they produce or use, don’t receive any market benefits – rather disadvantages. Instead, the political systems all over the globe promote industrial laggards. This needs to change on a political level.

Various barriers to progress incl. weak regs…

…what we need is a vision

Yet another large barrier is the way we talk about chemicals. The industry often uses arguments such as: “Everything is dangerous”, “salt can kill you too” and “everything is so complex”. Hearing this tends to make people stop caring about these issues – even politicians.

We need to elevate the discussion. We need a vision: Where are we headed? The future without hazardous chemicals is often painted as a dystopia: A regression to the Middle Ages, a poor life of starvation, disease and misery, or a Star Wars desert planet with no comfort or reliability. We need to communicate a bright vision that make people feel comfortable and excited. We will still have high-tech, good food, and a good life – even if we reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals that we all are exposed to.

CWR: Would an international treaty like UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution be an essential solution? If not, what are other fixes that could address the urgency of the issue?

ASB: Although a global treaty would be great, these kinds of agreements are usually not strong enough to tackle chemical and environmental challenges. There are so many hazardous chemicals affecting humans and the environment in a devastating way: cancer, hormonal disorders, mutations, and so on.

The quickest and most efficient way to deal with the chemical issue is through regional and national legislation. Countries and regions leading the way will influence other areas of the world since we have a global market in most sectors today.

CWR: Your organization ChemSec recently ranked the world’s 50 largest chemical companies on their use of chemicals of concern and green chemistry investments. Could you share the results and key insights of the index?

ASB: ChemSec’s tool ChemScore ranks the 50 largest chemical producers based on the chemicals they produce, as well as how they manage them from a safety and environmental perspective. Specifically, it ranks them on four categories: the toxicity of their product portfolio, research & development of non-toxic chemicals, management and transparency, and the number of controversies and scandals that the company has been involved in.

ChemScore ranked 50 largest chem producers…

…only 8% has public strategy with plans to phase out hazardous chems…

ChemScore 2021 is the second iteration of the ranking. This time, a number of investors, representing a combined capital of 4.1 trillion USD, wrote an open letter to the 50 ranked companies, stating the production of hazardous chemicals as the largest financial risk when investing in the chemical sector.

According to ChemScore 2021, 38 out of the 50 companies (76 percent) are actively marketing greener, sustainable products on their website. Yet, only 4 out of 50 (8 percent) showed evidence of a public strategy with plans to phase out existing hazardous chemicals, and all continue to produce hazardous chemicals in dangerously high numbers.

…Indorama tops ranking while Sinopec & Formosa Chemical & Fibres are in the bottom

Indorama (Thailand) tops the ChemScore 2021 ranking, followed closely by DSM (Netherlands) – scoring 29 and 28 out of 48 respectively, corresponding to a B and B minus. Both score highly for demonstrating a lack of controversies, and developing safer chemicals through circular production. These two highest scoring companies are followed by Air Products & Chemicals (USA), Avery Dennison (USA), and Johnson Matthey (UK).

In the bottom of the ranking, we find Sinopec (China) and Formosa Chemical & Fibres (Taiwan), scoring 3.6 points out of 48, corresponding to a grade D minus. Both of these companies are making little effort to develop safer chemicals, and greatly lack transparency.

CWR: Well, those results are sobering. Could you walk through the steps the companies need to take to move forward?

ASB: We offer the companies three recommendations to reduce their impact on human health and the environment:

  • Reduce the hazardous chemical portfolio by innovating safer alternatives. Since last year’s evaluation, there has been very little movement from the chemical industry in this area. Chemical producers need to establish a clear strategy with specific deadlines for phase-out of hazardous chemicals.
  • A circular economy needs an active chemical industry at the start of the supply chain to provide material that can be reused and recycled. The race has started, but must be accelerated.
  • Much more transparency is needed in order for investors to feel safe supporting chemical companies, and to understand which hazardous chemicals they are currently producing.

CWR: To wrap, is there anything you would like to call for? What do you want to see happen in the next couple, five or ten years?

ASB: We have noticed that more and more actors have an increased understanding of how various crises are interlinked and connected with feedback loops. We find ourselves in global biodiversity, climate and energy crises and can expect other global challenges – currently considered regional – to emerge. The most underrated, while largely invisible, threat to our wellbeing is the global chemical pollution of man-made hazardous chemicals.

Right now, we only see the very tip of an iceberg, the true size of which we don’t know. It’s so important not to become overwhelmed by the size and scope of the challenges. Instead, we need to understand how they are interlinked, and then boil those connections down to concrete strategies and actions.

Seeing awakening among investors regarding chems but still need more…

Looking at the investor’s community, we see an awakening regarding chemicals – even among main-stream investors. This is probably due to the large liability lawsuits concerning PFAS in the US. The fact that consumer-oriented companies don’t want hazardous chemicals in their products is best illustrated through the growth of ChemSec initiative the PFAS Movement, calling for the European Commission to impose a wide and efficient ban on all PFAS chemicals. The movement currently gathers more than 85 companies from different sectors, hoping that the restriction of all PFAS will result in more and easier accessible alternatives.

…and politically, need to move towards regulating entire substance classes

Politically, we need to move away from restricting individual chemical substances, and towards regulating entire substance classes. The EU has now started to move in that direction. Since the restrictions will be valid for all products produced within or exported to the EU, there will ripple effects on the industry in other regions as well.

Additionally, it’s important for politicians to understand that an environmental problem should not be solved at the expense of creating another one, for example reduce the amount of CO2 emissions using large amounts of hazardous chemicals.

Further reading

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