Official Journal of the European Union

C 303/122

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on mercury, and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008’

(COM(2016) 39 final — 2016/023 (COD))

(2016/C 303/17)


Mr Vladimír NOVOTNÝ

On 4 February 2016, the European Parliament, and on 18 February 2016, the Council, decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Articles 192(1), 207 and 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, on the:

Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on mercury, and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008

(COM(2016) 39 final — 2016/023 (COD)).

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee’s work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 11 May 2016.

At its 517th plenary session, held on 25 and 26 May 2016 (meeting of 25 May), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 153 votes to 2 with 3 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The Committee unreservedly recommends adoption of the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on mercury, and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 as a first step towards ratification of the Minamata Convention by the European Union as a whole and by its Member States.


The worldwide problem of mercury emissions requires a global approach, as embodied by the Minamata Convention. The EU has been, along with Japan, the prime mover in reducing the burden of mercury on the environment (and on the population), but we have to realise that mercury and its compounds will remain an element of the environment forever.


The Committee notes that sustained EU action on mercury globally and, in particular, within its own bounds has brought the Union a 75 % reduction in man-made mercury emissions since 1990 and the legislation in force guarantees further progressive reduction.


The Committee recommends that further EU action accord with the ratified Minamata Convention once it has come into force. The Committee is convinced that the legislative framework governing primarily missions — but also manufacturing processes and products — is sufficient to meet convention commitments without jeopardising the competitiveness of the EU as a whole.


It is essential, in the Committee’s view, that a commensurate portion of the EU’s scientific and research capacity be devoted to the question of mercury and its alternatives in the manufacturing processes and products.


The Committee further recommends that, following ratification of the Minamata Convention, the relevant EU bodies, together with Member State signatories to the convention, take part in the first conference of the parties to the convention on mercury (COP 1) — which is currently being arranged — and contribute new knowledge to enable further reduction of man-made emissions from mercury and its use in products and manufacturing.

2.   Introduction


Mercury is a natural component of the earth, with an average abundance of approximately 0,05 mg/kg in the earth’s crust, with significant local variations. It is also present at very low levels throughout the biosphere. Mercury absorption by plants explains its presence in fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas — but also in biofuels. In terms of mercury emissions, combustion of biomass is practically the same as burning coal. Mercury and its emissions are addressed in detail in United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) documents (1).


Once released, mercury persists in the environment, where it circulates between air, water, sediments, soil and biota in various forms. Its form can change (primarily by microbial metabolism) to methylmercury, which has the capacity to collect in organisms and especially in the aquatic food chain (fish and marine mammals). The bioaccumulation of mercury and other heavy metals and their long-range atmospheric transport potential are why they are considered a global environmental threat.


In some parts of the world, especially outside the EU, considerable numbers of people are exposed to mercury significantly above safe levels. The best estimates indicate that mercury emissions to the atmosphere from human activities amount to 1 960 tonnes/year worldwide and 87,5 tonnes/year (4,5 % of the total) for the EU. Direct emissions into water amount to 900 tonnes/year and natural emissions (rock erosion and volcanic activity) is around the same amount. An overview of anthropogenic mercury emissions can be found in Appendix 1.


Despite a decline in global mercury consumption (global demand is less than half of 1980 levels) and low prices, production of mercury from mining is still occurring in a number of countries around the world. The largest producers are China and Kazakhstan. In Europe, primary production ceased as far back as 2003, but mercury is isolated as a by-product of other extractive processes and treatment of raw materials. This mercury is classified as waste and is treated in line with legislation on waste.


Large quantities of mercury are also coming onto the global market — as a result of the conversion or shutdown of chlor-alkali facilities — from countries where, unlike the EU, trading in this mercury has not been banned.


Emissions from coal combustion and incineration processes, including for steel and manufacture of non-ferrous metals, are the predominant source of anthropogenic emissions and especially of immissions of mercury compounds in the vicinity of specific sources of emissions in the EU. Examination of the various options covers both the capture of mercury along with other elements in the process of cleaning gas emissions and capture processes specifically for mercury where these selective processes make sense.


Another major source of man-made emissions, mainly of elemental mercury, stems from the use of amalgam for dental fillings. It would appear that emissions (primarily into water) are far easier to monitor in this area and that the technologies available for this are widely used in the developed world.


The Committee has already voiced civil society’s position on harmful emissions of mercury and its compounds in earlier opinions and the present opinion is a natural continuation of these (2).

3.   The Commission document


The Union and 26 Member States have signed a new international convention on mercury. This, the Minamata Convention, addresses worldwide the whole life-cycle of mercury, from primary mercury mining to the management of its waste. Its aim is to safeguard human health and the environment from human emissions of mercury and its compounds to air, water and land. The Union and the vast majority of Member States have signed this new international convention on mercury, which already has 128 signatures and has been ratified by 25 participating countries (3).


A detailed assessment of the Union acquis has identified a limited number of regulatory gaps that need to be filled in to ensure the full alignment of Union legislation with the convention (4). This proposal seeks to address those gaps, which concern the following issues:

the import of mercury;

the export of certain mercury-added products;

the use of mercury in certain manufacturing processes;

new mercury uses in products and manufacturing processes;

mercury use in ASGM (artisanal and small-scale gold mining) and

mercury use in dental amalgam.


In the interest of legal clarity, the obligations resulting from the convention that are not yet transposed into EU law should be incorporated into a single legal act.


Legal clarity and coherence need to be strengthened and this proposal should, to this end, repeal and replace Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008, while nevertheless assuming those essential obligations that remain necessary.


The goals of this initiative are also consistent with those of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, inclusive and sustainable growth. This proposal will help to level the playing-field worldwide for industrial processes using or unintentionally emitting mercury and mercury compounds and the manufacturing and trading of mercury-added products, thereby promoting the competitiveness of Union industry.


In addition, the proposal also simplifies and clarifies the acquis as much as possible so it can be better and more effectively implemented.


The impact assessment concluded that the ratification and implementation of the Minamata Convention will yield the EU significant environmental and human health benefits, mainly due to the expected fall in mercury emissions originating in other parts of the world.

4.   General comments


The Committee endorses the adoption of this proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and the Council, since it represents the culmination of efforts over a long time to create a responsible legal environment that enables the sustainable, worldwide and long-term restriction of adverse effects from mercury and its compounds. The Committee notes that the proposal for a regulation is fully in line with the main objective of protecting health and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury.


The Committee warmly welcomes the contribution that not just the EU institutions, but also the various Member States, have made in the conception, negotiation and ratification of the Minamata Convention.


It is also very pleased that the whole process has respected — both now and earlier — the crucial principles of subsidiarity and the principle of proportionality, without this prejudicing the effectiveness of the legal instruments adopted at pan-EU level and worldwide.


The Committee is convinced that the efforts Europe has made will help to secure swift ratification of the Minamata Convention by the end of 2016 and a proper curbing of the health and environmental risks that come from anthropogenic emissions of mercury and its use worldwide. The Committee also affirms its conviction that the regulation of the European Parliament and the Council should not — and will not — go beyond the scope of what the Minamata Convention requires.

5.   Specific comments


The EESC is also pleased that the regulation reflects the outcomes of consultations with stakeholders in the EU and of discussions on the Minamata Convention conducted in expert fora under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Committee congratulates the Commission on the successful completion of the very demanding and extensive task of analysis that has resulted in the proposal for a regulation.


The Committee agrees with the Commission’s view that any trade restrictions that were to go beyond the requirements of the convention — in other words, that instigated an unconditional mercury import ban — would not be justified, since they would cost Union industry more without yielding any environmental benefits of note.


The Committee also shares the view expressed by the Commission in its proposal for a regulation that export restrictions on certain mercury-added products would also not be justified, given that mercury input and releases into the environment would remain largely unchanged and that such a prohibition could actually raise mercury emissions in third countries.


The Committee (in keeping with the conclusions of the consultations and the results of studies) unreservedly endorses the argument that restricting the use of mercury in certain manufacturing processes and in new manufacturing processes should be proportionate to the risks entailed and will come about as the result of technological progress over the longer term.


The Committee nevertheless endorses the provisions of the Minamata Convention stipulating that parties must take measures to discourage the development of new manufacturing processes using mercury and the production and placing on the market of new mercury-added products.


The Committee notes that the application of Directive 2001/80/EC on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants has resulted in a significant limitation of mercury emissions from the energy sector — the sector contributing most to anthropogenic emissions and mercury immissions in soil and water as a result of atmospheric deposition — and that this trend is continuing. Since 1990, mercury emissions from human activity have dropped in the EU by more than 75 % (5) and full implementation of Directive 2010/75/EU on industrial emissions will do a great deal to cut mercury emissions further. Endorsing the Commission’s view, the EESC believes there is no need as yet to change or add to the requirements of the Industrial Emissions Directive with regard specifically to emissions of mercury.


The EESC endorses the approach proposed to limit mercury emissions from industrial processes based on the concept of the best available techniques (BAT) and their reference documents (BREFs).


The EESC stresses the need for legislative measures on permanent and safe storage of mercury withdrawn from industrial processes in suitable geological structures — in disused salt mines, for example. The EESC calls on the Commission to set out as a matter of urgency criteria to apply to storage facilities and requirements for the storage of waste contaminated with mercury.


The Committee appreciates the balanced approach taken by the European Commission on the use of amalgam in dentistry based on the latest available scientific knowledge. It considers that requirements on equipment in dental care establishments — namely the obligation to install mercury separators and the restriction on the use of dental amalgam to its encapsulated form — are enough to effectively limit the release of mercury into the environment and to protect human health (6). At the same time, the EESC draws attention to the possible risks — as yet inadequately understood and not fully specified — of the new dental materials that are to replace the use of amalgam.


At the same time, the EESC draws attention to the rising costs of services reimbursed by public healthcare budgets and to the possible health and social effects on certain categories of patients were these costs to be passed on to them.

Brussels, 25 May 2016.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Georges DASSIS

(1)  UNEP, (2013). Global Mercury Assessment 2013: Sources, Emissions, Releases and Environmental Transport. UNEP Chemicals Branch, Geneva, Switzerland.

(2)  OJ C 318, 23.12.2006, p. 115.

OJ C 168, 20.7.2007, p. 44.

OJ C 132, 3.5.2011, p. 78.

(3)  http://mercuryconvention.org/Convention/tabid/3426/Default.aspx

(4)  Commission Staff Working Document, Impact Assessment Accompanying the documents Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on mercury, and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 and Proposal for a Council Decision on the conclusion of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, SWD (2016) 17 final.

(5)  Source: EEA, Trends in Emissions of Heavy Metals http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/daviz/emission-trends-of-heavy-metals-3#tab-chart_3

(6)  Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER): Opinion on the environmental risks and indirect health effects of mercury from dental amalgam (update 2014).