Product stewardship takes a grave turn

European Union mandates have impacted products produced and sold in the U.S., and will ultimately affect the chemical industry, according to Editor in Chief Mark Rosenzweig.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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I wish that summer was already over. While the season certainly has its attractions, I hate when it gets hazy, hot and humid. Without an air conditioner, my small home office would be absolutely unbearable. So, when my 1990-vintage window unit started showing signs of its age, getting a new air conditioner quickly became a top priority and a lesson in how manufacturing is changing.

The old air conditioner was made in the U.S.A. and cost me about $160, but all the small units at my local discounters were produced in China and sell for far less (without considering the difference in purchasing power between 1990 and 2006 dollars). While energy efficiency was a factor even back in 1990, the performance of the vintage unit undoubtedly would be totally unacceptable today. The air conditioner I just bought has a 9.7 energy efficiency rating and also uses a far more environmentally friendly refrigerant.

Okay, the evolution of consumer electronics has conditioned us to expect better and cheaper products year after year. So, I wasn’t really surprised. What did surprise me, however, was what happened when a problem developed with the new unit.

The air conditioner initially made a slight scraping sound, apparently from the fan rubbing against something. Slightly repositioning the unit made the noise disappear for a while. When it returned, I called the manufacturer. The customer service representative told me to remove the plastic casing and to cut away any polystyrene insulation that might have shifted in transit and now touched the fan.

However, none of the insulation seemed to be in the way. So, the person authorized a replacement air conditioner to be sent to me. Then, she asked whether I was able to properly dispose of the defective unit or needed to have it shipped back to the company.

Sure, I have dropped off items like old car batteries and empty toner cartridges for recycling, but I never have had a manufacturer offer to take an entire piece of equipment back for disposal. But this undoubtedly won’t be the last time. Today, product stewardship is beginning to involve not just responsibility for manufacture and use of an item but also for its ultimate recycle or disposal. European Union (EU) directives are a major force behind this trend toward end-of-life accountability, as regulatory columnist Lynn Bergeson explains (p. 19).

The EU directives cover vehicles as well as electrical and electronic equipment. They aim to spur recycle or reuse of materials and to foster design changes that enhance these prospects or at least minimize environmental issues posed by disposal. So, for instance, new vehicles sold in the EU generally cannot contain lead, mercury, cadmium or hexavalent chromium. Likewise, these materials and polybrominated biphenyl ethers are banned from electrical and electronic equipment.

Because major manufacturers serve global markets, we are seeing the impact of EU mandates in products made and sold here. For instance, electronics producers in the U.S. have gone to lead-free solder.

The chemical industry undoubtedly will feel the directives’ effect, if only indirectly at first. Rather than complaining about the grave burden, we should view end-of-life accountability as a further way to demonstrate our commitment to “Responsible Care.”

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