14. Europe Holds Companies Environmentally Responsible, Despite U.S. Opposition

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In These Times, April 17, 2000
Title: The Big Stick Approach
Author: Joel Bleifuss

Faculty evaluator: David Van Nuys, Ph.D., Peter Phillips, Ph.D.
Student researchers: Michael Runas, Molly Garrison, Deanna Battaglia

In the near future, the European Union will hold any company that enters the European market responsible for the environmental impacts of its products. Known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), the new regulations will make manufacturers change product design, the kinds of materials used in manufacturing, and the methods by which products are disposed to insure environmental integrity. American corporations have enlisted the aid of the Clinton administration to derail these proposals.

EPR regulations were hugely successful in Germany in the 1990s, requiring all manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, to recycle all product materials, shifting the costs of managing packaging waste from taxpayers to the waste producers. By 2006, vehicles sold in Europe must contain no heavy metals, such as lead, mercury or cadmium, and must be manufactured from recyclable materials. The E.U. plans to implement EPR regulations for all products that contain electrical circuits, phasing out the use of toxic metals in the production of consumer items like refrigerators and computers.

Joel Bleifuss writes, “the beauty of EPR is that by putting the financial burden on the companies for the environmentally responsible impacts of products throughout their life cycle, industry has a natural economic incentive to act in an environmentally responsible manner.” Writing in Beverage Industry magazine, E. Gifford Stack of the National Soft Drink Association describes EPR as a “big stick approach.” “Because the stick delivers a pretty good financial whack,” he notes, “producers also have a financial incentive to design their products to make less waste.”

The Clinton administration has done everything it can to block EPR. The President’s Council on Sustainable Development, established in 1993 to examine ways to encourage environmentally sustainable growth, held heated discussions about EPR, but in its proposed program the council’s industry-dominated task force concluded that users and disposers share equal responsibility with manufactures and suppliers for environmental effects-a position that puts the blame back on the consumer instead of the manufacturer.

Of course, U.S. corporations could take such responsibility, they just don’t want to bear the cost. And the EPA and other branches of government are doing what they can to make sure that they won’t have to. “We are not going to simply follow in the footsteps of Europe,” stated Elizabeth Cotsworth, acting director of EPA’s Office of Solid Waste.

Despite the best negative efforts of the Clinton administration, the concept of EPR is spreading. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), an association of the world’s most developed countries, is promoting ERP as a promising new public policy tool. Ignoring protests from the U.S. the OCED is drawing up guidelines on the best ways to implement the EPR program in other countries.

Update by Joel Bleifuss

Though it is a revolutionary-and at the same time entirely feasible-means of greatly reducing negative environmental effects of corporate manufacturing practices, the topic of extended producer responsibility (EPR) has not been touched by the U.S. media. Big business would heartily oppose EPR, since the only way it would work is through government regulation. Some environmental organizations are promoting the idea. The Environmental Defense Fund has information on EPR at: http://www.environmentaldefense.org/programs/PPA/vic/epr.html. Information on the waste generated by the electronics industry can be found on the Inform Inc. website:http://www.informinc.org/eprgate.htm

Joel Bleifuss: itt@inthesetimes.com