Dealing with the Nasty Waste

October 7, 2009 at 10:33 am 2 comments

By Liam Moriarty

It used to be that when a company sold you a widget, they got your money, you got the widget, and that was the end of it. Now – as concern about the volume and toxicity of our waste increases — that way of doing business is changing. In Europe – and in the Pacific Northwest — more businesses are being required to take responsibility for their products in new ways, as KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty tells us in Part Three of our series “Europe and Us: Growing a Green Future.”

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These computer components will be ground up and recycled.

My look at the shifting landscape of recycling and toxic chemicals first takes me to a huge industrial building in South Seattle. There, forklift-loads of TVs and computer monitors are being heaved onto conveyor belts. Workers are taking screw guns and hammers to the discarded electronics, disassembling them down to their component parts.

Craig Lorch is co-owner here at Total Reclaim. His company is one of several certified to recycle electronic waste under Washington’s new e-waste law. Among other things, the law requires that these old machines – and their toxic chemicals – don’t end up being dumped overseas, where they can poison humans and the environment.

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Craig Lorch is co-owner of Total Reclaim in Seattle.

Recycling old electronics has been happening for years. But Washington’s e-waste law is something new.

“It’s a producer responsibility law,” explains John Friedrich, with the Washington Materials Management and Financing Authority. “It takes the burden of this off of the taxpayer.”

Friedrick runs the state-wide recycling program paid for by electronics manufacturers. The program started last January, and it’s on track to collect 40 million pounds of cast-off e-junk this year, at a cost to producers of $10 million. It requires electronics companies to cover the end-of-life costs of the products they sell. That concept – called extended producer responsibility – is a new one in the U.S. When Washington’s e-waste law was passed three years ago, it was the first in the nation to put full responsibility on manufacturers. But this isn’t a new idea in Europe …

Brussels, Belgium is sort of like the Washington, D-C of Europe. As the seat of the European Union, it’s the place where the 27 nations that make up the E.U. hash out their common policies. In his office at the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment, Klaus Koegler explains to me a keystone of E.U. environmental policy — what’s called the “Polluter Pays” principle.

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Klaus Koegler, deals with recycling for the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment

“That simply means that whoever causes damage to the environment is responsible also in financial terms to repair it or to minimize it right from the beginning.”

Koegler says that gives regulators a firm footing for a range of laws that extend producer responsibility. One example: cars sold in the
E.U. are required to be 85% recyclable by weight. That creates an incentive for automakers to make recycling their cars as easy and cheap as possible. And a product that’s easy and cheap to recycle is likely to be easier on the planet.

This European push to expand producer responsibilities is also happening with industrial chemicals. Bjorn Hansen keeps an eye on chemicals at the Directorate General for the Environment. He points around his office …

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Bjorn Hansen helps regulate chemicals for the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment.

“Just us sitting here,” he says, “ you’re probably exposed to chemicals which come from the office furniture, which have been used to color the textiles, which had been used to create the foam, the glue under the carpet where we’re sitting … You name it, you’re exposed.”

The question, Hansen says, is whether all this exposure to chemical compounds is harming our health or the environment. The answer?

“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.”

That uncertainty led to a new law known by its acronym, REACH. REACH requires that tens of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products in the E.U. be studied. If a substance can’t be safely used, manufacturers will have to find a substitute, or stop using it. REACH has, at its core, a radical shift: it’s no longer up to the government to prove a chemical is unsafe. The burden of proof is on industry to demonstrate safety, and by doing so, it assumes financial liability for that safety. Even for industries accustomed to tougher European regulations, when REACH was first proposed, it was alarming.

Lena Perenius — with CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council – says there was quite violent opposition in the beginning.

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Lena Perenius and Franco Bisegna with CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council

“In the E.U we already had a very comprehensive set of regulations for insuring safe use of chemicals,” she says. “The industry saw that this was putting an unreasonable burden on the companies.”

Still, the measure had strong public support. After several contentious rounds of negotiations, Perenius says the industry feels it got key concessions that’ll make the far-reaching law workable.

It’s hard to imagine the chemical industry in the U.S. accepting a law like REACH. But in the Northwest, a number of measures have brought chemicals under tighter control. For example, Washington was the first state to create a list of toxins that can accumulate in people’s bodies – such as mercury and lead — and to begin to phase them out.

Even though Europe has taken bolder steps in holding industry accountable, in the U.S., the Pacific Northwest has been at the forefront. And that means a changing relationship between you and the companies that make the products you buy.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Larry Wilson  |  September 30, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    While many of these changes are positives, I’m wondering about the extent of European intiatives, such as waste, could translate to the United States?
    Particularly with respect to the differences in tort and liabilities laws between the United States and Europe.
    Thanks for producing a program about European attempts to promote sustainability and increase efficiency.

    Reply
  • 2. Jane Kuechle  |  September 30, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    There are drop off sites all over the State of Washington where you can drop off your old electronics for FREE. The program is wonderful. One such site is in Issaquah at the recycle center on 7th Avenue, operated by AtWork! AtWork! is an employment program for people with disabilities. The organization is paid by the pound for the electronic equipment collected which is then transported to Total Reclaim. Funds raised are used to help support the organization’s mission of helping people with disabilities be productive, integrated and contributing members of their communities.

    Reply

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