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Eliminating Toxic Materials in Products

2010 May 14

What are the barriers to eliminating the use of toxic materials wherever possible and by recycling and reusing waste that can’t be eliminated?

An important part of responsible environmental behavior is continuing our efforts to increase efficient, sustainable management of materials, minimize toxic releases to the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. During a product’s life cycle there are unrealized opportunities to reduce waste and toxicity by not creating so much waste in the first place.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment permalink
    May 14, 2010

    The recyclability of a product is mostly determined in the design stage. That’s why making producers responsible for the end of life of their products is so important. Then the designers will have a reason to design out toxics which are so expensive to deal with at end of life especially when the household exemptions for landfilling toxics is removed. We shouldn’t have to rely on creating markets for materials at the end of life. The producers should be the market or find the market.

    Obviously, we also need to implement the precautionary principle and put restrictions or bans on certain materials as well.

    The problem is that the level of corporate power at the federal level makes it unlikely to get decent federal producer takeback legislation. With e-waste, we can get much better policy in some states than we can out of Congress.

    Regrettably, in Texas the e-waste takeback law passed was very weak. Texas Campaign for the Environment just released a report detailing the low collection rate of most producers and of the Texas program compared to the 6 other states that have released first-year data. Texas is dead last. Here’s the link to the report which includes recommendations on strengthening the takeback law:
    http://www.texasenvironment.org/fund/PressReleasesStory.cfm?IID=927

  2. Kristin Ryan of State of Alaska, department of environmental conservation permalink
    May 14, 2010

    A common mind-set of many American’s that value excessive consumption over reduction and/or reuse strategies.

    I think the true cost of disposal or lifecycle issues needs to be reflected in products as sort of a right-to-know effort. That would help consumers understand the entire picture and make informed choices. That would require criteria established by EPA so that all products were using the same formula to calculate those costs. Perhaps a voluntary effort to see if it becomes popular by consumers?

  3. Jean May-Brett of Louisiana Science Teachers Association permalink
    May 15, 2010

    This month’s question touches on something science teachers all over the country are concerned about. SAFETY in chemical disposal.

    Assistance is needed when it comes to removing toxic/hazardous substances and chemicals from our schools. Over time the information with regard to safety has improved. As a result schools often have dangerous chemicals previously used for investigations on hand and no way to dispose of them.

    Truly there is the potential for a major problem in many schools around the country. But there is no one ready to help. The cost for proper disposal is out of reach for a teacher. When communities collect left over paint or other household chemicals they don’t accept the old mercury thermometers. Many sit in drawers or on shelves in schools around the country. This is just one example of what is laying around.

    No fire or police departments are willing to assist.

    Perhaps a “Spring Cleaning” campaign could be instituted as part of the SCCC or another EPA sponsored program to assist in the removal of the hazardous materials in our schools. Some hospitals have monthly or quarterly pick up of harmful materials…maybe they could partner with neighboring schools.

    To get partners it will take strong leadership from the federal and state governments.

  4. Heidi Sanborn of California Product Stewardship Council permalink
    May 16, 2010

    The number one barrier is that the polluter is not paying for product pollution. Since pollution clean-up costs have been externalized onto the taxpayers and ratepayers for waste and other pollution, there is no economic feedback mecahnism to the producer to stop making it so toxic and expensive to remediate. Conservative economists say that the way to reduce pollution without regulation is to make the polluter pay and let the market work itself out. For a great quote by Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett’s short video on this issue, go to http://www.calpsc.org and click on the video.

  5. Ruth Willcox of Plymouth City Council permalink
    May 17, 2010

    The use of composites and components consisiting of many separate elements/compounds further complicates the situation and adds cost at the recycling stage due to the need for waste segregation.

    In countries where labour costs are relatively low this problem can be overcome. The metal and plastic recycling industries in Dharavi India provide a prime example:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/destinations/india/article7124205.ece

    http://www.goheritageindiajourneys.com/select-theme-tours-india/slum-tourism.php

    In essence, almost anything can be recycled and/or re-used, but whether awareness, initiative and incentive are sufficient is another matter!

  6. Dorothy Allen of MassDEP permalink
    May 17, 2010

    Those regulatory or voluntary programs that try/claim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or toxics use must start performing LCAs of products to determine the scope 3 emissions associated with material production and product manufacturing. This will allow for the collection of metrics that could be used for tracking toxics use, waste generation/prevention, ghg emissions. trade issues such as imposition of appropriate tariffs, compliance with EU regulations such as REACH, meaningful implementation of carbon trading such as regional cap and trade programs.

    While manufacturers claim business confidentiallity to prevent meaningful LCAs this barrier is being challenged by the need to comply with EU regulations, the development of databases such as Ecoinvent, the need for third party verification for eco-labelling and branding claims. Tracking toxics use and contribution of materials to ghg emissions should be viewed by business as an opportunity to innovate and help with product branding and labeling.

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