The impact of the European Union's directives on the U.S.

The Restrictions of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (the RoHS Directive) is part of a growing wave of European Union product-based regulations that will profoundly impact global and United States product standards — and thus the chemical industry.

By Lynn Bergeson, regulatory editor

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Manufacturers and importers, as of June 30, have been barred in European Union (EU) countries from marketing electrical and electronic equipment containing lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and polybrominated biphenyls ethers (PBDE). This ban is under Directive 2002/95/EC, Restrictions of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (the RoHS Directive). The directive is part of a growing wave of EU product-based regulations that will profoundly impact global and United States product standards — and thus the chemical industry.

A focus on Europe

Traditional environmental regulation has limited manufacturing facilities’ environmental releases, effluent discharges, and related activities believed capable of posing harm to human health and the environment. Other statutes and regulatory programs have focused on the cleanup of historic contamination from industrial activities that may have occurred decades ago, before their effect was completely understood.

Environmental protection today, particularly in the EU, is expressed differently, with a new focus on product regulation, particularly on those consumer products believed to pose environmental harm upon disposal. These directives are designed to minimize waste by forcing product design changes and requiring product reuse and recycle at the end of their useful lives. The EU, in 2000, adopted the precedent-setting End-of-Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive (Directive 2000/53/EC). Under it, EU member states were required to develop and implement collection and recycling systems of all ELV, and establish reuse and recycle goals. Product design standards mandated that vehicles marketed after July 1, 2003, not contain lead, mercury, cadmium or hexavalent chromium, except as specifically authorized.

More recent similar directives include other consumer commodities. Directive 2002/96/EC on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE Directive) requires EU member states to establish systems to manage the burgeoning amounts of electronic waste. Other directives have been enacted, and more are expected in the years to come. While Europe is unquestionably setting the pace, domestic initiatives at the federal, state, and local level cannot be far behind.

U.S. product accountability

Product manufacturers serve global markets, and thus EU standards have become default global standards. As a result, these EU Directives are revolutionizing product manufacturing standards globally and effectively forcing manufacturers in selected markets to take greater responsibility for the products they make, including after the end of their useful lives.

For the most part, U.S. product take-back initiatives are voluntary. A good example is a thermostat consortium formed in 1998 by Honeywell, General Electric Corp., and White-Rodgers. The Thermostat Recycling Corp. (TRC) collects and recycles thermostats. Since 1998, TRC has recycled approximately 430,000 thermostats and has recovered 4,000 pounds of mercury, according to Michael Bologna in “Policymakers Urged to Develop Systems Involving All Participants in Product Chain,” BNA Daily Environment Report, June 16.

Another initiative, started April 16 by Green Seal Inc., fosters recycling latex paint. The voluntary standard covers collection and sorting, health and safety, packaging, labeling, end-of-life materials management, and certification requirements. It is part of the larger Paint Product Stewardship Initiative (PPSI), managed by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), a nonprofit organization to encourage recycling of consumer products. The PPSI is a dialogue of more than 60 stakeholders and focuses on the growing problem of managing the responsible disposition of consumer paint waste.

Implications

The growing body of EU Directives is influencing, and will continue to profoundly influence global product manufacturing standards and will fuel consumer insistence upon product take-back and/or end-of-life accountability for a wide range of consumer products. These initiatives directly impact chemical manufacturers targeted for restriction as well as consumer products manufacturers whose products must meet certain design standards to facilitate recycle and reuse.

Whether and how the federal government responds to such trends is unclear. It is more likely that government agencies will impose similar end-of-life requirements to ensure that electronic and similar high-volume consumer products are recycled and/or reused to avoid becoming the next generation’s problem. Similarly, voluntary initiatives will continue to populate the consumer product waste disposal scene. Such initiatives are increasingly viewed as consumer-pleasing, a common component of standard corporate product stewardship initiatives, and infinitely more efficient than trying to enact new laws or regulations.

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