a race to the top?

New European regulations may reduce toxic hazards around the globe

All too often globalization is synonymous with a race to the bottom. Freed to roam the globe, corporate capital can move wherever labor and environmental regulations are weakest. Even the threat of such a move can stifle demands for higher standards, depressing wages and weakening environmental protections everywhere.

But could globalization ever mean a race to the top? Can high standards be globalized?

As evidence has mounted of the harm to human health and the environment many chemicals used in information-age products cause, European activism against these toxins has also grown, culminating in stringent new regulations. Beginning in 2006, all electronic equipment produced and sold in the European Union (EU) will be subject to two sweeping regulations, one designed to keep toxics-laced electronics out of municipal waste, the other to reduce use of toxic substances in the first place.

Under the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive, electronics manufacturers will be responsible for taking back and recycling their products and consumers can return used appliances to manufacturers without charge. By shifting costs of disposal from society as a whole to manufacturers, this policy creates an incentive for producers to design products that are easier to recycle and use fewer toxic ingredients.

The other EU directive, RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances), will require the elimination from new equipment (with certain exceptions) of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and two types of flame-retardants (polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, both documented to be persistent in the environment and to accumulate in the tissues of humans and animals). This legislation will unify what individual countries—particularly those in northern Europe—had begun to regulate on their own.

All electronics sold in Europe will have to meet these standards. U.S. manufacturers are optimistic about complying with the new regulations.

“EU design requirements will become global requirements,” says David Isaacs, Hewlett-Packard's director of global public policy. “Our plan is to meet the RoHS standard globally,” says Dell spokesperson Bryant Hilton. “We thought there was credible evidence for the concern, and that there were adequate alternatives,” says Timothy Mann, IBM's program manager for environmental policy, of IBM's elimination of certain polybrominated diphenyl ethers since the late 1990s. Adequate alternatives are key to solving the materials problems. Of the RoHS-restricted materials, lead presents the biggest challenge. Dell, HP and IBM all say that this directive is spurring their efforts to find substitutes for lead wherever possible, but they warn that this may not be possible in the case of monitor glass and cathode ray tubes, where lead is used as a radiation shield.

In the U.S., the new EU regulations have created new impetus to achieve high standards on the use and disposal of toxins. Pressure on manufacturers—in the form of purchasing power—is coming from groups not often cast as environmental activists: large group-purchasing organizations. The Western States Contracting Alliance, the Society of College and University Professionals, and organizations that purchase equipment for the healthcare industry are among those working to include environmental criteria—including take-back, hazardous materials reductions, and recycling that bars export of electronic waste—in new orders, and developing environmentally preferable purchasing programs, some with input from the GrassRoots Recycling Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Computer Take-Back Campaign.

The new EU regulations are not panaceas for the problems caused by electronics waste, but manufacturers and recycling advocates generally agree that pressure from Europe is prompting environmental improvements throughout the industry. “I don't want to overemphasize the good,” says Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, but “the two directives taken together are having a tremendous impact in harmonizing things upward.”

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