Strategy, Legal & Operations

UK chemicals regulation: What businesses need to be aware of in 2021

Discover what's happening with chemicals regulation in the UK in 2021 and why it matters to British business as a whole.

Before Brexit, UK trade in chemicals was highly integrated with the single market, with complex supply chains seeing products crossing multiple borders.

In 2019, the chemicals industry contributed £12.6bn to the UK economy and chemicals are a major UK export worth £31.4bn, comprising 9% of all exported UK goods.

The UK has now left the European Union (EU) and a trade deal has been reached. However, there are still important decisions to be made regarding chemical trade regulations moving forward. But what are they? We cover them in this article.

Chemicals regulation before 1 January 2021

Before 2021, the UK followed EU REACH (Registration and Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation), the primary EU legislation for regulating chemicals in the EU.

The regulation is designed to improve the protection of human health and the environment while enhancing the industry’s competitiveness.

It places the burden of proof on businesses and requires them to identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture and market in the EU.

It meant British companies had to have substances manufactured in or imported into the European Economic Area (EEA) registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), along with safety information about the chemical and its uses.

UK businesses were required to register substances that they manufactured or imported into the EEA (in quantities of more than one tonne).

You needed to provide a registration (called a registration dossier) that provided information about the properties and hazards of the substance, and any risk management measures associated with its use.

Alongside this, you needed to be supported by scientific evidence such as the results of safety testing experiments.

What Brexit means for chemicals regulation in the UK

The UK no longer follows EU law. Even though tariffs will be avoided on chemical trade with the trade deal, there is still uncertainty over the regulatory framework to come.

In brief, the UK government needed to:

  • Transpose REACH regulation into UK law through the Great Repeal Bill.
  • Create or secure access to expert committees, IT systems and tools that are central to the operation of REACH.

The government decided the best course of action was creating a UK REACH with a UK database of registration dossiers, replicating the EU version held by the ECHA.

What this means for your chemical manufacturing firm

The UK’s independent chemicals regulatory framework UK REACH is now in place.

Any business that makes, sells or distributes chemicals in the UK and the EU will need to follow both UK REACH and EU REACH rules.

UK REACH will also maintain EU REACH’s aims and principles, which include:

  • A ‘no data, no market’ principle – you shouldn’t place substances in the UK market without prior registration
  • A ‘last resort’ principle on animal testing
  • Access to information for workers
  • The precautionary principle – enabling decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain, and the stakes are high.

Under UK REACH, manufacturers and importers must register chemicals that access the GB market. It covers all industries involved in importing, distributing or using chemicals as raw materials or finished products.

This applies to most chemical substances used in industrial processes and daily life, such as cleaning products and those used in clothes and electrical appliances.

UK REACH applies to any business, regardless of size, and it makes you responsible for the safe use of the substance you place on the market.

This is true regarding every company involved in the supply chain, as they must also communicate information on the safe use of chemicals.

You must review your:

  • Role in the EU REACH system
  • Role in the UK REACH system
  • Current supply chains.

You’ll need to take specific actions to access the EU or EEA and UK markets.

In particular, the UK government advises you to:

  • Establish how your business is going to be impacted under the UK REACH regulations and implement any necessary actions
  • Prepare an up-to-date inventory of substances supplied in the UK and the rest of the EU if appropriate
  • Determine the supply level in the UK/EU separately and determine which substances will require registration in either UK REACH, EU REACH, or both systems.

You must review your role in the EU and UK REACH systems and your current supply chain. From this information, there may be specific actions that you need to take.

Of particular note is the fact that EU REACH registrations held by UK-based businesses will carry directly across directly into UK REACH through a process of ‘grandfathering’ – where you can effectively copy your EU REACH registrations into UK REACH without business interruption and registration fees.

The UK government now proposes that you have a six-year phased time frame to do this, based on tonnage.

This is undoubtedly a good move, as it will allow you to spread costs and resources over a more extended period than the two years that was initially envisioned.

There’s an online service, Comply with UK REACH, that allows you to validate existing and submit new registrations to UK REACH.

Potential costs of duplicating registrations

The registration process sounds simple in principle, but there are potential issues that you may have to negotiate around buying ‘letters of access’ to use test data held by the ECHA, which contains information that is expensive to produce and often controlled by third parties.

The Financial Times reports that unless there is a data-sharing deal with the EU, this new system could add more than £1bn in costs to duplicate existing registrations.

Ultimately, the exact nature of the UK’s chemical regulation regime, and the extent of any cooperation with the ECHA, it still not set in stone.

Final thoughts

Changes are afoot regarding chemicals regulations in the UK and, despite uncertainty in what the trade means, it pays for manufacturers to put the necessary steps in place now to be ready.

By following the government guidance as it currently stands and responding to government announcements as they come, while putting your plans into play, you’ll put your firm in the best position to prosper.

Never miss an episode

Subscribe by email and get Sound Advice delivered to your inbox every two weeks with the Sage Advice newsletter with a ton of related articles, templates and problem solving guides for small businesses so you can put our sound advice into practice.