BY LIZ NEWMARK, in Brussels WITH the Brexit negotiations now underway in earnest, the plastics industry is clear about its ideal outcome – maintaining the existing legislative framework for plastics when the UK leaves the European Union (EU) – scheduled for March 29, 2019. This is essential for the health of the industry in the UK and its current EU partners, experts have told European Plastics News, with the third round of Brexit negotiations to start August 28.

“We don’t want to have to conform to two different legislative frameworks: one for the UK market and another for exports to the EU,” after Brexit, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) director-general Philip Law said, speaking on August 1.

The UK’s so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which will convert all EU legislation into British law – scheduled to pass through the British parliament later this year – is a key part of this process. But it may not be that simple – for the BPF, key EU legislation includes REACH (the EU’s registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals regulation), the classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals (CLP) regulation and several packaging and waste-related directives. While some of these rules can be administered by UK national regulators, some – notably REACH – is all about assessments undertaken by EU regulators and member states (especially the European Chemicals Agency – ECHA). How its powers and responsibilities can be written into UK law as Britain becomes independent of EU agencies remains to be seen.

Mr Law is looking for the process to be as smooth as possible: “We’ve fought long and hard with our European industry colleagues to get the workable EU legislation we have,” the head of the UK’s leading trade association continued. “Our hope is that the UK will shadow EU legislation, with sections of it seen as state of the art.”

At the Helsinki-based ECHA, a spokesperson told Plastics News Europe: “The direct application of the REACH regulation has undoubtedly been beneficial to chemicals’ safety in the UK.” ECHA is “still investigating the effects of the UK withdrawal on the EU chemicals legislation, with a view to providing advice to stakeholders and companies once respective answers are ready,” he added.

European chemical industry association Cefic warned that losing participation within REACH would be challenging for chemicals and plastics companies, bringing additional costs and complexity.

“Withdrawal of the UK from REACH (‘out of REACH’ scenario) would trigger substantial changes, including disruption of chemicals trade,” Cefic’s executive director – industrial policy René van Sloten told Plastics News Europe. He highlighted the potential impact on the 5,000 plus registrations of chemicals already made by companies in the UK that guarantee their unhindered use within the EU.

After Brexit, chemicals shipments from the UK will be considered as non-EU imports and so maybe requiring a fresh registration by EU importers, he explained. With the UK expected to leave by 2019 (unless extension is unanimously granted by the EU-27), the problem will be exacerbated by the 2018 REACH registration deadline for chemicals made or imported in smaller volumes of between one and 100 tonnes annually.

Mr van Sloten was concerned about dossier updates and data sharing for plastic chemicals registrations after 2019: “Who will be responsible for providing further information if originally a UK company was the lead registrant? If a UK company is the data owner, will a new EU registrant be needed?”

For him, the most likely post-Brexit scenario would be “the UK adopting identical REACH legislation independently” – he noted REACH also applies in the European Economic Area (the EU member states plus non-EU Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway).

He said plastics manufacturers must comply with REACH when exporting to the EU-27. However, as the UK may take a more hazard-based approach than the EU’s current risk-based stance, “Brexit would allow certain chemicals in processing operations that cannot be used in the EU.”

Plastics exports will also be affected by tariffs adopted after Brexit. According to the BPF’s Law, “No-one can predict the arrangements that will eventually fall into place but the weakness of sterling has not only boosted exports, it has enabled UK plastics companies to compete more effectively with imports.

“Having said that, we want as much access to the single market as can be exacted in the negotiations,” he emphasised.

Mr Law was also confident plastics innovation would not suffer, given the UK plastics industry’s strong traditions in this area: “This is the country that ‘discovered’ polyethylene and developed PEEK [polyetheretherketone, used in engineering applications]. I don’t think this will change following Brexit. The government has highlighted research and development in its industrial strategy for the UK and there will be compensating funding for grants lost through EU withdrawal.

“The UK is highly respected as a research partner,” Mr Law continued, predicting “pressure from within the EU to keep the UK around the appropriate tables”. Acknowledging the UK plastics industry’s labour shortage, he said “one response to this could be increased innovation in productivity generally and automation in particular.”

Similarly, while citing “some evidence” that investment decisions were being delayed, he argued “in our latest Business Conditions Survey [conducted in June/July 2017], a third of respondents planned to invest significantly over the next 12 months, predominantly in overseas business development, automation and staff training.”

Ultimately, Mr Law told Plastics News Europe: “It’s still early days to assess the impact of leaving the EU. The full impact will not be known for years,” so: “We have to play the cards we are dealt as skilfully as possible.”

The Brexit timetable is also uncertain, although indicative dates for the fourth and fifth negotiation rounds are September 18 and October 9. The Commission expects talks to take 18 months – until October/November 2018. That would leave the UK House of Commons probably until late 2018? as the time when both British houses of parliament might have a ‘deal or no deal’ vote on the Brexit agreement.