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In this inaugural ‘View from the UK’ column, David Park from the British Coatings Federation (BCF) discusses the pressing issues in the UK coatings industry today, including the intricacies of achieving UK REACH and chemicals classification in a post-Brexit landscape
UK chemicals strategy and UK REACH
The UK continues to develop its own independent chemical regulatory system since it left the European Union some two-and-a-half years ago. Helping to get this new regime right remains the British Coatings Federation’s (BCF) number one priority for its members.
A UK-wide chemicals strategy is expected to be published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) by the end of 2023. How far it will attempt to mirror the EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability remains to be seen but we are told it will at least establish a ‘regulatory approach and priorities for the sustainable use of chemicals through UK REACH.’
"It is important to get this right. You cannot simply ‘copy and paste’ EU REACH. If the costs of registering substances under UK REACH are too high, there is a very real risk that supplier companies will simply choose not to register them in the UK at all, leading to a loss of available chemicals and putting domestic manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage to their neighbours across the Channel."
UK REACH registration has been put back after Defra accepted that the original legislation as drafted would have meant significant extra costs to UK industry; somewhere in the region of £2bn but maybe higher. Presently, under transitional arrangements, UK companies can continue to use the substances they were using when the UK was in the EU. However, all substances will have to be registered in the UK system if they are to continue to be used in future.
Those registration deadlines under the original timetable would have started to kick in from October this year. Instead, each tonnage band deadline has been put back by three years, with this new timetable written into UK law in July. This means the transitional registration process will now not be completed until 2030.
The reason for the delay is to allow a new, hopefully more workable model for UK REACH to be developed. We at the BCF, alongside other trade associations and companies, have been working to help Defra come up a with a model that delivers on the UK’s determination to maintain high standards of health and environmental protection but also recognises that the UK is just one-tenth the size of the EU market.
And it is important to get this right. You cannot simply ‘copy and paste’ EU REACH. If the costs of registering substances under UK REACH are too high, there is a very real risk that supplier companies will simply choose not to register them in the UK at all, leading to a loss of available chemicals and putting domestic manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage to their neighbours across the Channel. Alternatively, the burden of registration could have to be taken up by UK formulators and users of chemicals themselves, again adding to costs creating unfavourable business conditions for domestic companies. Moreover, the system needs to be realistic about the capacity of the UK regulators to work with the system. ECHA is funded and staffed by 27 countries: can the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) replicate all ECHA’s functions on its own?
With discussions between Government, industry, and NGOs going on for well over a year, we hope to hear some news about a likely new direction of travel very soon. Indeed, if a new Alternative Transition Registration (ATR) model is to be legislated for next year – which is the stated aim – we probably need to see something on paper for open discussion and consultations by Autumn.
Other UK chemical regulation developments
Beyond REACH, we are starting to see more divergence between UK and EU regulations. The EU continues with new ATP’s to CLP, with the 17th ATP active from December 2022 and the 18th from December 2023. In comparison, the UK remains at classifications from the time of Brexit negotiations, i.e. the 15th ATP with decisions on later ATPs still largely to be made. We are seeing a similar situation with decisions around biocidal products, where capacity issues in the HSE mean decisions on substances already looked at in the EU have been pushed back.
While some of this can be deemed ‘divergence by delay’, where the UK is watching what the EU does and decides whether to follow, there is an increasing tendency for ‘divergence by design’, where differences of scientific opinion are leading to different approaches. For instance, the UK has chosen not to follow the EU in implementing Annex VIII of the CLP for poison centre notifications – a welcome step as far as BCF members are concerned – and we are seeing different definitions and outcomes as UK authorities assess Bisphenol A and PFAS. On the PFAS point, the UK seems to be taking a middle position between that of the US and the EU authorities.
Ultimately, increasing divergence between the UK and EU means it us harder for businesses to keep up with regulatory changes and, in the case of CLP, it is possible different labelling will be required in future. All this adds to costs for business and the BCF is pushing Defra and the HSE not to diverge on these points simply for divergence’s sake (i.e. for political reasons following Brexit) but to consider the bigger picture, and cost, regulatory deviation from our closest trading partner brings.
Careers and training
While there are many other issues BCF is pursuing on behalf of its members – from aiding the journey to Net Zero, dealing with sustainability legislation, and changes to building regulations – I have space in this article to briefly mention just one other initiative moving up our agenda. This is around improving training and skills and, looking further ahead, to bring in the next generation of talent to the coatings sector.
BCF has recently relaunched its Coatings Training Institute, with a number of new and improved courses and modules, and with a new, easier to access website. This is in addition to the BCF’s apprenticeship service, run through our Coatings Careers Hub webpages. These courses and programmes help to ensure skills and knowledge in the sector remain high.
But we want to look further ahead too. We want to work alongside other companies and trade associations operating in the chemicals sector to try and increase the number of students taking Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) subjects at school and university. And During 2024 we want to start reaching out to current students to explain to them why the coatings sector can offer a great career for them. We have trained over 80 ‘Coatings Ambassadors’ to engage with students around the country and we will be looking to deploy them into careers fairs. With an aging workforce across much of the chemicals industry generally, coatings sector included, we need to make sure the next generation of talent is ready to replace retirees and take up the challenges for the future.