European chemical makers face printer overloads

Jan. 30, 2007
Upcoming REACH regulations will tax IT systems and generate mountains of paper, according to Mike Spear in his monthly End Point column.

As visitors to our recently redesigned Web site will surely agree, the progress made in recent years in digital media and communications has been quite spectacular. The driving force behind this surge in information technology (IT) has, of course, been the success of the Internet and the rapid global spread of high-speed access to it. This also has transformed our plants, with Web-enabled technology now a commonplace feature of many equipment monitoring and control systems. We’ve all benefited enormously from the digital age, but has IT really lived up to all of its early promise?

In many ways there can be no doubt that it has. The day-to-day life of remote office workers such as myself, for example, depends upon today’s digital communications. Where IT has clearly failed to score, however, is in delivering that brave new world of the “paperless office.” Admittedly, we might all be up to our necks in paper by now had it not been for the advent of the electronic Portable Document Format (PDF). But, as I send off yet another order for printer cartridges, I can’t help thinking the future for the pulp and paper industry is looking quite robust for some time to come.

Of course, this is good news for a country like Finland, for instance, which exports between 80% and 90% of its pulp and paper production and has 7% of its gross domestic product tied up in the industry. Why Finland in particular? Well, apart from the country having two-thirds of its surface area covered in forest, its capital, Helsinki, has been chosen as the site for the headquarters of the new European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is being set up under the European Union’s registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals (REACH) regulations that come into force June 1.

If one piece of legislation seems destined to add to the EU’s already overflowing paper mountain, it is REACH. Replacing about 40 pieces of legislation currently in force, REACH will require the registration and testing of about 30,000 chemicals and chemical-containing substances made or imported in amounts greater than one metric ton/year. Fortunately, these requirements are to be phased in over an 11-year period (not even Finland could meet the paper demand otherwise). But it has been estimated that the total cost of REACH over that period could exceed $2 billion. Chemical producers will bear much of that cost, in gathering, preparing and handling the huge amounts of data required on each chemical’s properties, uses and safe handling.

ECHA will manage, and in some cases, carry out the technical, scientific and administrative aspects of REACH and ensure the system is applied in a harmonized way.

In the first phase, which focuses on preregistration, ECHA will inform companies of what they have to do to meet the provisions of the regulations. Registration proper — of “existing substances” — will start around 2010 and is aimed at chemicals of “high concern” or those made in volumes above 1,000 m.t./yr. In the next stage, six years down the line from this June, companies that produce lower tonnages (between 10 and 1,000 m.t./yr.) will have to start registering their chemicals, followed at the end of the 11 years by low volume substances (1-10 m.t./yr.).

That’s just the registration process (and testing where necessary to complete the data). Evaluation follows to determine which chemicals should then be subject to the authorization phase if they are deemed to pose a high risk to health or the environment. The industry expects that about 1,500 chemicals will have to be authorized; ECHA will have the ultimate power to restrict the use of certain dangerous chemicals entirely.

Eventually, Helsinki will be home to a staff of about 400 in the Agency’s secretariat, but for now there are just about 100 brave souls readying themselves for the blizzard of information about to come their way.

We wish them well.

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