Addressing the Challenge of PBTs

Joanna D Underwood INFORM

Finding solutions to the problem of PBTs in commerce depends on the ingenuity and expertise of chemical industry leaders, and of entrepreneurs in other industries who can devise product alternatives that are PBT-free or as close to that as possible. Examples of equally challenging innovation provide encouragement that the same inventiveness that brought us the chemical advances that contribute so much to today's quality of life can likewise meet the challenge posed by these hazardous chemicals.

Persistent toxic chemicals, because they resist degradation in soil, water, and air, can travel long distances from where they were discharged and have impacts long after their initial release to the environment. Many of these stable substances also bioaccumulate, building up to dangerous levels in living organisms, even when released in very small quantities. Mercury, for example, once it enters a water body, can accumulate in predator fish to concentrations as much as one to ten million times greater than those of the surrounding water, endangering humans and wildlife for which the fish is a food source (U.S. EPA, 2001). Similarly, a single meal's worth of fish from Lake Michigan can expose a person to more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than a lifetime of using the lake as a primary source of drinking water (EPA).

Even when a PBT has been banned from use, its impacts can persist for many years. Despite a ban on the manufacture of PCBs that went into effect more than two decades ago, hot spots of PCB-contaminated sediments remain in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.2 And because these chemicals remain in the environment for so long, they can travel long distances from where they were discharged. PCBs have been transported by migratory animals and by air, water, and ice from the various

2It is important to note that levels of several persistent toxins (such as lead, DDT, and PCBs) have significantly declined in fish in the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem following restrictions on their manufacture and use (U.S. EPA, 2003).

parts of the world where they are used or were used in the past to as far away as the Arctic, where they now pose a major threat to the health of people and animals living in that remote region (Tenenbaum, 1998).

Because of the exceptionally long-lasting risks posed by PBTs, the only way of safeguarding the environment, wildlife, and human health from their impacts is to use them in a closed-loop system, which would prevent them from escaping into the environment, or to phase out their use altogether. The first option is problematic because fugitive emissions are an issue in even the most well-controlled manufacturing processes, and because PBTs have effects at every stage of their commercial lifecycle - from extraction through use and disposal - they would pose risks both before and after they entered the closed-loop process.

Ultimately, the choice of whether to continue using a chemical depends on weighing the importance of its role in society versus the degree of risk it presents. While scientific opinion is relatively consistent regarding the long-term threats of PBTs, the more subjective political and economic judgments about their value may vary and be debated for years. Nonetheless, the second option - to phase out the use of these chemicals by aggressively pursuing alternatives known to be less persistent, less bioaccumulative, or less toxic, but equally effective - is an effective strategy for reducing or eliminating their risks.

Some leading companies are voluntarily rising to this challenge. Swedish retailing giant IKEA has stopped using brominated flame retardants (see IKEA website), numerous building systems companies, including Emerson, Trane, and Robert Shaw, are providing mercury-free controls and HVAC systems (INFORM, 2003), and Fujitsu now manufactures some of its computer components (such as its printed circuit boards) without lead, a PBT (see Fujitsu Siemens Computers website).

The ingenuity shown by these and other companies could be a key to success in the emerging global green products market. In some jurisdictions, using substances without accounting fully for their environmental and health effects will no longer be possible. For example, in February 2003, the European Union passed the Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (known as the RoHS Directive), which requires member countries to develop legislation banning the use of lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, mercury, and two categories of brominated flame retardant (polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers) from all electrical and electronic equipment sold in the EU by 2006. Manufacturers that continue to incorporate these hazardous substances into their products will no longer have access to the European market (European Parliament, 2003a).

Also in February 2003, the European Union enacted the Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (known as the WEEE Directive), calling for manufacturers to take end-of-life responsibility for their products (European Parliament, 2003b). Until August 15, 2005, this directive applies the principle of "collective producer responsibility" to wastes generated by electrical and electronic products. This principle allows companies to pool monies used for managing their wastes. However, for wastes generated by products manufactured after that date, it applies the principle of "individual manufacturer responsibility," with the result that the companies with the most easily and cost-effectively refurbishable or recyclable products may gain an economic advantage over those generating more waste. Similar policy approaches are being adopted in Japan, China, and other countries.

Measures such as these, which give manufacturers direct fiscal responsibility for managing the waste generated by their products, may well create an added incentive for removing hazardous and persistent substances from the products in question, as well as encourage ingenious reuse strategies that can turn potential wastes into raw materials for future products. Ericsson Electronics, for example, has already communicated to vendors the names of chemicals it will not accept as constituents of the products it buys (Fishbein, 2002).

The EU directives may also motivate manufacturers to work toward the elimination of other substances, besides those banned under RoHS, in the products they make. For example, electronics manufacturers, because they are now required to take back their products and meet recycling targets set by the WEEE Directive, may want to eliminate other chemicals (such as other types of flame retardant) that create impediments to recycling or pose risks to their workers' health.

In the United States, interest in purchasing products that are PBT-free or that contain reduced quantities of these chemicals has been growing steadily over the past few years. INFORM initiated a program focused on state purchasing offices in 2000 and is now advising procurement officials in 16 states - identifying the products they purchase that contain PBTs and alternative options that are equally effective. One by one, purchasers are shifting their product choices in favor of products that are performance-equivalent, cost-competitive, and readily available. Low-mercury lighting systems, mercury-free thermostats and other building equipment, bio-based lubricating oils, PVC-free IV bags (items made of PVC can create dioxin, a PBT, when burned in medical waste incinerators), lead-free boat and road paint, mercury-free thermometers, and other hospital equipment are all increasingly in demand. Demand is also growing for government fleet vehicles free of mercury components and for vehicles that burn natural gas instead of diesel fuel, whose combustion releases several PBTs.

U.S. EPA, too, is likely to begin paying more attention to products. While the agency has traditionally placed most of its regulatory focus on wastes and emissions from manufacturing operations (it has a specific goal of reducing PBTs in such wastes and emissions by 50 percent by 2005, compared to 1991 levels), a 2000 INFORM analysis of data from the expanded right-to-know programs in New Jersey and Massachusetts showed that more than 95 percent of the persistent toxins (many of which are PBTs) leaving industrial facilities were going into products, compared to only 5 percent generated as industrial waste.

In light of broadening regulatory concerns and the trend toward analyzing the products purchased by government agencies in favor of the least toxic options, chemical companies can get ahead of the game by examining their operations for PBT uses and impacts and bringing their product planners in on the search for PBT-free feedstocks. They can ask such questions as: If PBTs are used in manufacturing and are leaving the plant in products, can they be replaced by other substances? If PBTs are created during manufacturing, are controls available to prevent releases to the environment? If PBTs such as dioxins, lead, and mercury are generated or released when products are disposed of in incinerators or landfills, is this a reason to pursue the search for new feedstocks?

As awareness of the impacts of PBTs grows, local governments and environmental organizations are going beyond chemical bans such as those imposed by the EU's RoHS Directive, and beyond policies that extend the responsibility of producers for their products when they become waste, such as those applied to numerous product categories in the European Union and elsewhere. Recently, government purchasers such as the New Jersey Purchase Bureau, the Massachusetts Operational Services Division, and the New York State Office of General Services have begun to require disclosure of PBT-containing items in purchasing contracts or the removal of specific PBT-containing items from state contracts. While companies may not be eager to supply such information, those that strive to use fewer PBTs may be able to use these requirements to demonstrate their good faith efforts and gain market share, even before the phase-out of a particular material is complete. Those companies that do eliminate substances of concern will certainly be able to profit from the product evaluations and comparisons that the disclosure requirements permit.

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