Rise to the challenge of global legislation

Oct. 24, 2006
Despite having a parliament that regularly shuttles itself, lock, stock and ballot box, for four days each month between Brussels, Belgium, and Strasbourg, France, the European Union (EU) still manages to put out an amazing amount of legislation.

The impact of much of this legislation generally goes no further than the borders of the 25 member states — and very often not even that far, as various countries have been known to adopt something of a cavalier approach to the implementation of directives that might go against the grain of their own legislation — but recent EU environmental initiatives are setting almost de facto international standards on product quality and manufacture (see November's cover story, Industry tackles a grave).

The combination of the REACH proposals on chemicals testing and authorization (almost certain to be voted into legislation by the end of the year) and the already implemented WEEE and RoHS Directives, aimed at electronics and electrical equipment, is making global manufacturers of a vast range of products review their designs. The companies are looking at replacement strategies for hazardous materials, using more readily recyclable components, and generally taking the whole life cycle of their products into consideration before they decide on new developments. Everything now is under scrutiny — from how vehicles can be disposed of at end-of-life, for example, to what chemicals are being used in the manufacture of even the smallest component contained in those vehicles. And it’s not only large volume consumer goods; soon all industrial electrical and electronic equipment will come within the scope of the legislation.

As the article on product stewardship indicates, few, if any, manufacturers have a problem with this. Given time to adopt any changes required in either their designs or production processes, they all demonstrate a commitment to conform and comply with directives that, to a large extent, are merely a more prescriptive version of what they say they are voluntarily doing anyway.

That raises the obvious question of why legislate when the will to practice good product stewardship is already there? This is the “carrot and stick” argument. Without the threat of doors closing across a vital part of the global marketplace, would companies be as proactive in taking on cradle-to-grave responsibility for their products? Without question, the manufacturers will say yes. The legislators, meanwhile, are attempting to hurry the process along — not just in Europe but also increasingly around the world.

Between the two, a consensus inevitably will emerge, with manufacturers rising to the challenges, providing the legislators consult with them over the practicalities and, having done so, enforce their statutes fairly. Unfortunately, as we all know, equitable enforcement doesn’t always happen. Too often, governments around the world use legislation — and not necessarily environmental legislation — as something of a blunt instrument to protect their own industries and businesses against foreign competition.

So, it was encouraging in talking to global control companies about their approach to product stewardship and the impact of the EU legislation that not a single person raised the specter of “protectionism.”  No one offered the opinion that making manufacturers take responsibility for recycling their products, or producing them without use of hazardous materials might all be part of a plot to protect European firms in their own markets.

Instead, there was a widespread acceptance that the requirements being set by the EU will form the basis of similar initiatives in countries around the world. Many mentioned China’s recent introduction of legislation almost identical to the RoHS Directive. Similar moves being considered by the California state legislature also are based on the detail of RoHS — and, in fact, as Sean Keeping, ABB’s instrumentation technology vice president, points out, the latest version of that draft legislation stipulates that, in the event of a difference of opinion over its applicability to any product, then the U.K. interpretation of RoHS will carry sway.

Now whether that’s a stick or a carrot is debatable, but what can’t be argued is that protecting the environment is fast becoming a worldwide concern; one that transcends petty protectionism applied to any one nation’s trade.

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