Options for advancing informed substitution and alternatives assessment within Canada’s chemicals program

This report was developed by the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production under contract with Environment and Climate Change Canada

June 2018

The views expressed in this report do not reflect the opinion of the Government of Canada nor its present or future policy direction.

Table of Contents


The Canadian government is exploring opportunities to renew and modernize its Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) and is also in the process of reviewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999). CEPA 1999 and CMP are foundational elements of Canada’s approach for managing chemicals. CEPA 1999 lays out a precautionary vision, making pollution prevention the cornerstone of national efforts to reduce risks from toxic substances.

Established in 2006, the CMP represents a government-wide, single-strategy approach for prioritizing and taking action on substances of concern in order to implement Canada’s international obligations to meet the 2020 goals for the sound management of chemicals set by the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the United Nation’s Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).  The CMP brings together efforts across federal programs and statutes that address assessment and management of substances under a single strategy, including CEPA 1999, the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA), the Pest Control Products Act (PCPA), the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), and the Fisheries Act. By 2020, the CMP will be finalizing its domestic and international commitments, providing an opportunity to scope and reformulate a “post-2020” program that could enable and include expanded program elements.

Figure 1. Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999
Figure 1 - Canadian Environmental  Protection Act, 1999
Figure 1 - Text description

The figure illustrates how the CMP has brought together various Acts and Regulations relating to chemicals management. CMP activities under CEPA include the risk assessment and risk management of existing chemicals and new chemicals to Canada since 1994. Activities under the Pest Control Products Act include the registration and re-evaluation (every 15 years) of pesticides. Under the Hazardous Products Act and the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, research, risk assessment and risk management of safety hazards of consumer products are undertaken. The Fisheries Act ensures the protection of fish habitat essential to sustaining other species. The Food and Drugs Act (health products) ensures access to safe and effective drugs and health products and Food and Drugs Act (foods) includes policies, standards and information of food safety (packaging, contaminants, additives).

Under the CMP, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Health Canada (HC) have developed broad expertise in rapid screening approaches, as well as a number of technical methods for streamlined risk assessment of chemicals. These efforts have resulted in significant achievements in terms of assessing approximately 3,470 priority existing chemicals and undertaking risk management actions for about 437 existing chemicals in a 12-year period along with pre-market assessment of nearly 5,700 new chemicals.

Recent post-2020 CMP stakeholder consultations as well as Parliamentary review of CEPA 1999 have identified informed substitution and alternatives assessment as priority areas for consideration in future chemicals management policy development.  Importantly, as the government begins to consider its post-2020 chemicals management strategy, it has the potential to take its efforts to the next level by building on the skills, knowledge, and tools developed in the CMP assessment process to align with international activities and lessons learned around informed substitution and alternatives assessment. Doing so could position Canada as a global leader in developing a holistic chemicals management framework focused on driving safer, more sustainable chemistry. 

The goal of informed substitution is “to minimize the likelihood of unintended consequences, which can result from a precautionary shift away from a hazardous chemical without fully understanding the profile of potential alternatives, and to enable a course of action based on the best information that is available or can be estimated.”

- United States (U.S.) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Alternatives assessment is defined as a “process for identifying and comparing potential chemical and non-chemical alternatives that could replace chemicals of concern on the basis of their hazards, performance, and economic viability.”

- U.S. National Research Council

Given this context, the Government of Canada commissioned the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production (LCSP) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell – leading experts in informed substitution and alternatives assessment processes – to conduct an analysis of options to advance informed substitution and alternatives assessment within Canada’s chemicals program. The analysis was informed by a review of informed substitution and alternatives assessment policies, frameworks, and tools implemented internationally; interviews with government, industry, and non-governmental stakeholders; and review of relevant Canadian policy documents. The analysis considers both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches within and beyond the context of CEPA 1999. These options present opportunities for the Canadian government to improve ecosystem and human health while supporting innovation and competitiveness for Canadian companies.  

Options for advancing informed substitution and alternatives assessment in Canada

The LCSP’s recent policy and program research for the European Union and Canada on international substitution and alternatives assessment efforts identified 5 key themes to guide government actions, including:

  1. A combination of voluntary and regulatory approaches are needed to most effectively support the transition to safer chemicals
  2. Regulations and policy actions represent important substitution incentives
  3. Greater collaboration between government departments, the supply chain, and the scientific community is needed to ensure development of data, tools, and capacity to support informed substitution and alternatives assessment
  4. Collaboration at a global level can help resolve gaps in data and tools, identify best practices, and strengthen and bring consistency to informed substitution and alternatives assessment activities
  5. Substitution activities should be more effectively linked to sustainable chemistry research, development, and innovation

Informed by these lessons, this report outlines a post-2020 vision and program with 4 areas of strategic actions to advance informed substitution and support alternatives assessment activities in Canada. This approach is consistent with those outlined in the European Chemicals Agency’s 2017 Substitution Strategy, outcomes from the November 2017 CMP Stakeholder Advisory Council and the January 2018 CMP Science Committee, along with recommendations from the June 2017 Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development report.

Establishing a solutions-oriented, interdepartmental umbrella policy/program that links traditional regulatory approaches with non-regulatory incentives and supportive actions that drive innovation in and adoption of safer chemistry could serve as the foundation for Canada’s chemicals management efforts post-2020.  The new vision for “Beyond 2020” would not just focus on assessing and managing “bad actors” but also encouraging and facilitating the development, adoption, and use of chemicals and chemical products that are safer and more sustainable, promoting the goals of green chemistry

"A safer alternative is a chemical that due to its inherent chemical and physical properties, exhibits a lower propensity to persist in the environment, accumulate in organisms and induce adverse effects in humans or animals, and delivers the functional performance required."

- Green Chemistry and Commerce Council

“Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous sub­stances. Green chemistry applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manu­facture and use and is inspired by 12 fundamental principles, which are used in its implementation. Green chemistry is a critical element of sustainable chemistry. "

- Green Chemistry and Commerce Council

Informed substitution, which promotes the thoughtful assessment and consideration of alternatives to minimize the potential for unintended consequences in the transition to safer chemicals, materials, products, and processes, should be the guiding principle of this vision. This represents a cultural shift in the way chemicals are assessed and managed. It moves from a vision based on risk management and reduction for individual chemicals, to one focused on evaluating and adopting the safest, most sustainable ways (chemical, material, or process) to meet the functions performed by chemicals of concern in specific applications — what has been termed a “functional substitution” approach.Footnote 1  A functional substitution approach permits a broader examination of chemical classes and functional categories, more efficiently identifying potential problems and a broad range of solutions, including considering the need for the function. It allows a systematic prioritization and comparison of chemicals for particular functions, an ability to prioritize chemical functions of highest interest due to chemical hazards, exposure potential, substitution potential, or market importance, and an opportunity to highlight research needs for green chemistry or design solutions.

Such a policy/program would also combine a regulatory program that more effectively emphasizes informed substitution, with programs that provide technical support, research and funding, collaborative opportunities across government entities and the supply chain, along with education and training.  These programs would need to be supported by concrete policies, infrastructure, resources, staff capacity, mechanisms for collaboration, and program accountability.

To achieve this vision and successfully implement a post-2020 program that advances informed substitution and supports alternative assessment activities in Canada, 4 areas of strategic actions could be considered:

  1. Build scientific and technical capacity
  2. Incentivize the adoption of safer chemicals, processes, and technologies
  3. Facilitate collaboration among federal, provincial, territorial, and international governments
  4. Support innovation through research and development in green/sustainable chemistry

Build scientific and technical capacity

In order to support a chemicals management effort that is underscored by informed substitution and alternatives assessment, there is a need for capacity-building in both government and industry.  Government departments need capacity to support development of frameworks and guidance for conducting substitution planning or alternatives assessments; develop and refine alternatives assessment tools, methods, and data sources to support the alternatives assessment process; and review the quality of assessments.  Industry needs capacity to identify, evaluate, and make decisions on substitutes.  It is also important for ECCC and HC, as well as other departments, to build capacity to support industry’s research, development, evaluation, and adoption of safer alternatives. The industry focus should include the entire supply chain, from chemical manufacturers to retailers, as each level plays an important role in developing, using, adopting, or sourcing chemicals and chemical products and has different capacity needs.

The Canadian government could establish a new national Centre of Excellence for Safer Chemistry (or network of centres) that would also support a multi-stakeholder experts’ network of government, industry, and academic stakeholders across Canada to: 

  • Develop consistent methods for evaluating alternatives to priority chemicals, based on international experience and major frameworks, such as that of U.S. National Research Council, and employing support of the CMP Science Committee
  • Support alternatives assessments for national priority chemicals and sectors through dissemination of guidance and scientific research as well as assessment activities
  • Establish training programs for the government and related stakeholders along the supply chain on alternatives assessment, chemical substitution and green chemistry
  • Provide technical assistance and networking to firms, utilizing infrastructure developed through years of pollution prevention technical assistance programs
  • Facilitate public-private research initiatives on safer chemicals, product and process designs, and technologies for priority chemicals and functions
  • Serve as a home for the community of practitioners in this field, to support training, education, and sharing of experiences 

Importantly, a new Centre of Excellence could also support dialogue and demonstration projects across sectors and the supply chain on safer chemistry.  A forum for actors along the supply chain would be useful to discuss needs, share experience and resources, and build collaborations. It is important that these support efforts not only be focused on chemical manufacturers and formulators but also on brands and retailers, which are increasingly under pressure from consumers to substitute chemicals of concern in the products they source.

Incentivize the adoption of safer chemicals, processes, and technologies

Many of the fundamental activities currently conducted to assess and manage chemicals in Canada, including new substances notification, significant new activity (SNAc) notices, risk assessment, and risk management, could be enhanced to provide signals for the transition to and incentivize the adoption of safer chemicals, processes, and technologies. 

For example, the expertise and knowledge developed through the new substances notification and risk assessment programs could serve as the basis for:

  • Developing predictive tools to support comparative chemicals assessment and provide early warnings to industry about chemicals and chemical structures or classes of concern
  • Establishing mechanisms to facilitate market entry for safer chemistries through the New Substances Notification Program pre-notification consultations, including providing design tools and other scientific information to support the development of safer chemicals
  • Establishing recognition programs for chemicals, products, and technologies that have reduced toxicity profiles for a particular function, modeled after the U.S. EPA Safer Choice Program
  • Creating lists of chemicals that exhibit highly hazardous properties of concern as an early warning signal for voluntary substitution; and
  • Building systems to more closely track and review use and exposure information gathered through New Substances Notifications, SNAc notices, and other mechanisms to monitor for potential regrettable substitutes and identify potential targets for substitution efforts

Chemical risk management efforts could also be utilized to support this vision by including substitution goals and planning requirements in pollution prevention planning notices and codes of conduct, where legal authority exists, or including alternatives assessment requirements where regulations restrict or significantly reduce the exposure limits for a chemical of concern.

Facilitate collaboration among federal, provincial, territorial, and international governments

Informed substitution requires a broad scoping of options and consideration of a range of potential trade-offs to workers, consumers, and the environment.  In addition, harmonization of informed substitution and alternatives assessment policies and methods internationally could help support the development and implementation of these chemicals management approaches in Canada.  As such, collaboration among governments in Canada and around the world is critical.

As a starting point, ECCC and HC could convene federal, provincial, and territorial department experts to support a whole-of-government approach to informed substitution and alternatives assessment.  This effort could start by reviewing chemicals management policy structures to understand where synergies or conflicts exist across pieces of legislation, departments, and product categories, examining chemicals and materials research priorities for connections to regulatory and market priorities, and analyzing opportunities for better alignment/collaboration. Such an effort should include a broad range of authorities that have a role in the transition to safer chemicals, including those responsible for research and innovation, procurement, occupational health, defense, environmental protection, consumer product safety, agricultural chemicals, and public health, among others.

Given Canadian leadership on committees addressing chemicals testing, assessment, and management at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Canada is also in a strong position to work with other supportive governments to shape international activities on informed substitution and alternatives assessment. In particular, HC and ECCC could share resources and align approaches/criteria for alternatives, safer chemical designation, and substitution with the U.S. (and states like California) through bilateral initiatives like the Regulatory Cooperation Council.  HC and ECCC could collaborate closely with the European Chemicals Agency as it implements its substitution strategy. ECCC and HC could play an active role in shaping activities on alternatives assessment and substitution as part of the OECD alternatives assessment toolkit and UNEP’s SAICM. Canadian involvement at the international level could support harmonization of approaches to alternatives assessment, identify common priority chemicals for supply chain substitution action, allow for sharing of experience to develop best practices, and increase the impact of Canadian policies for Canadian companies.

Support innovation through research and development in sustainable/green chemistry

Other departments and stakeholders also have an important role in supporting the innovation goals of a post-2020 strategy to drive informed substitution and alternatives assessment.  Coordination between Canadian chemicals regulatory programs (housed primarily at HC and ECCC) and programs that provide funding, incentives, and support for safer chemistry, housed primarily at Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada (ISED), is critical. 

A more effective linkage between regulatory priorities for chemicals and programs that support basic research, testing, development, and manufacture of more sustainable chemicals [for example, Green Centre Canada, Bio-industrial Innovation Canada (BIC), National Research Council of Canada (NRC), and Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC)], should also be considered.  These programs are recognized globally for their efforts to support innovation in more sustainable chemistry.

Building connections to the increasing number of academic education and research programs on green chemistry, for example at McGill University, the University of Toronto, and Queens University, could also help more effectively link knowledge developed in chemical assessment efforts with the capacity for safer chemical innovation.

A starting point for understanding strengths, gaps, and coordination of infrastructure for safer chemistry innovation is to assess current programs. ECCC and HC could undertake a landscape analysis of government-funded programs at the federal, provincial, and territorial (FPT) level in chemical risk prevention (occupational, environmental, and public health), pollution prevention, green chemistry, and bio-based chemicals innovation to understand available technical resources, expertise, funding, and industry research, development, and support needs along the supply chain. 


This report outlines a vision and areas of strategic action to advance informed substitution and alternatives assessment for Canada’s future chemicals management efforts.  Some of the recommendations are relatively simple extensions of existing programs, while others will require modifications to CEPA 1999 and/or the creation of new infrastructure or coordination of existing programs. A primary goal of this analysis is to present opportunities that can stimulate a discussion amongst government departments and stakeholders from industry, academia, and non-profits on the most effective means to drive safer chemistry in Canada. This can help inform post-2020 CMP discussions.

Through the implementation of the CMP and a number of leading edge programs in pollution prevention and green chemistry, the Canadian government has established many of the scientific assessment, research, and support foundations necessary to facilitate the transition to safer chemicals. As a result, Canada is well positioned to develop a holistic chemicals management policy approach founded on informed substitution post-2020 that supports innovation and competiveness of Canadian companies and improves ecosystem and human health globally.


Footnote 1

Tickner J, et al. Advancing Safer Alternatives Through Functional Substitution. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2015; 49 (2): 742–749.

Return to footnote 1 referrer

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