Over the last two decades Europe has been forcing more and more companies to make sure their products don’t harm human health… or end up in the environment. And that principle is now starting to take greater hold here in the US. Liam Moriarty of station KPLU in Seattle reports.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. We use a lot of products that contain toxic substances. Until recently, the companies that make these products have borne little responsibility for their potential impacts. But that’s starting to change. In recent years Europe has been forcing more companies to make sure their products don’t harm human health or the environment. That concept is now starting to take hold in the U.S. as well as Liam Moriarty of station KPLU in Seattle reports.
LIAM MORIARTY: In a huge warehouse in Seattle, forklift loads of TVs and computer monitors are being heaved onto conveyor belts. Workers are taking screw guns and hammers to the discarded electronics.
CRAIG LORCH: They’re pulling the plastic covers off the devices. They’re pulling the picture tubes out of it. They’re basically dismantling it to component parts.
MORIARTY: Craig Lorch is co-owner here at Total Reclaim, which recycles electronic waste under Washington State’s new e-waste law. Among other things, the law requires that the toxic chemicals in these old machines don’t end up being dumped overseas. Recycling electronic waste isn’t new, but Washington’s e-waste law added a twist; it’s completely paid for by manufacturers.
JOHN FRIEDRICK: It’s a producer responsibility law which takes the burden of all of this off of the taxpayer.
MORIARTY: John Friedrick runs the Washington recycling program. It collected more than 38 million pounds of cast off e-junk last year at a cost to producers of 10 million dollars. Requiring companies to cover the end of life costs of their products is called extended producer responsibility. It’s a fairly new idea in the U.S. But the idea has been a keystone of environment policy in Europe for years.
KLAUS KIRGLER: Whoever causes damage to the environment is responsible, also in financial terms, to repair it or to minimize it right from the beginning.
MORIARTY: That’s Klaus Kirgler at the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment in Brussels. This “polluter pays” principle is enshrined in the treaty that created the European Union in 1993. Kirgler says it gives regulators a firm footing for a growing range of laws that extend producer responsibility for a host of products. Cars, for instance, have to be 85% recyclable by weight. And just last year the EU extended that principle to chemicals. Bjorn Hansen helps regulate chemicals for the EU.
BJORN HANSEN: We by far do not know what chemicals are out there, what the effects of those chemicals are, and what the risks are associated with those chemicals.
MORIARTY: That uncertainty led to new law known by its acronym REACH. REACH requires that tens of thousands of chemical used in every day products in the EU be studied. If a substance can’t be used safely, manufacturers will have to find a substitute that can be. The law shifts the burden of proof away from government having to prove that a chemical is unsafe.
HANSEN: The burden of proof is on industry to demonstrate safety. And by demonstrating the safety that they think, they also take liability and responsibility for that safety.
MORIARTY: Even for industries accustomed to tough European regulations, this newest application of the “polluter pays” principle was alarming.
LINA PERENIAS: There were very violent opposition in the beginning.
MORIARTY: Lina Perenias is with the European Chemical Industry Council.
PERENIAS: In the EU we already had a very comprehensive set of regulations for ensuring safe use of chemicals. The industry saw that this was putting in an unreasonable burden on the companies.
MORIARTY: Still, the measure had strong public support. After years of negotiations, Perenias says the industry feels it got key concessions that will make the law workable. Meanwhile, many people back here in the U.S. have been watching the evolving European policies. Darryl Ditz of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., says producers are making a basic tradeoff.
DARRYL DITZ: Many responsible companies are willing to take the extra responsibility that it implies in exchange for greater confidence by consumers.
MORIARTY: Ditz notes that major American chemical companies such as Dow and DuPont are already complying with the European standards because they sell in the EU market. But, he says:
DITZ: The U.S. has been lagging, lagging behind the Europeans and lagging behind many of the states here in our country.
MORIARTY: In recent years, a growing number of states from Maine to California have enacted manufacturer’s take back laws for electronic waste, pharmaceuticals, paint and other products. And more than a dozen have moved to toughen safety standards for a variety of chemicals. Now there are signs of momentum building to take that approach at the federal level, especially for chemicals. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenburg says he’ll soon introduce a bill with a simple goal.
FRANK LAUTENBURG: Force chemical makers to prove that their products are safe before they end up in a store, in our homes, or in our bodies.
MORIARTY: It’s a proposal that sounds very much like the European approach. The idea will likely face tough opposition here in the U.S. The Obama administration is also pushing for tighter regulation of chemicals. Even the American Chemistry Council has agreed to support reform as a way to assure consumers their products are safe. As always, the devil will be in the details. But the Center for International Environmental Law’s Darryl Ditz says companies are more and more having to consider the long term costs to both society and themselves of what they put in their products.
DITZ: If they include toxic chemicals at the front end, they need to recognize that that means problems at the back end.
MORIARTY: And that means the landscape faced by U.S. industry in the coming years may look a lot more like Europe’s. For The World, I’m Liam Moriarty in Seattle.
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