With little fanfare and no notice in the U.S. media, Europe is
fomenting an environmental revolution. Inspired by a concept known
as "extended producer responsibility," the European Union is drawing
up regulations that require corporations to change their environmentally
In the near future, the European Union will hold any company that
enters the European market responsible for the environmental impacts
of its products. New regulations will force manufacturers to change
product design, the kinds of materials used in manufacturing and
how products are disposed. American corporations, none too pleased
with this government interference, have enlisted the aide of the
Clinton administration to waylay these green proposals.
Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, got its start in Germany
in 1991, when the Christian Democratic government, responding to
citizen concerns about the scarcity of landfill sites, passed a
law requiring manufacturers to take back and recycle all packaging
materials, boxes, cans and bottles. Within two years, 12,000 companies,
many of them U.S.-based, were participating in an industry-funded
recycling program, which shifted the costs of managing packaging
waste from taxpayers to the waste producers. It was wildly successful.
Holland soon followed suit, as did Sweden, France, Austria, Finland,
Spain and Belgium. Now the European Union is finalizing legislation
that will standardize EPR for packaging across its 15 member states.
EPR is not just an Old World thing. In Canada, seven of the 10
provinces have adopted an EPR system that requires producers to
take responsibility for beverage-container waste. As a result, these
provinces have achieved a recovery rate for beverage containers
that far exceeds that in most American states.
The beauty of EPR is that by putting the financial burden on companies
for the environmental impacts of products throughout their life
cycle, industry has a natural economic incentive to act in an environmentally
responsible manner. When properly regulated, the market does work.
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."
EPR has failed to take hold in the United States, in large part
because the Clinton administration has done everything it can to
block it. 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 substituted "product"
for "producer." Under the council's scheme of "extended product
responsibility," as spelled out in its 1996 report, "Sustainable
America: A New Consensus," "Manufacturers, suppliers, users and
disposers of products share responsibility for the environmental
effects of products throughout their life cycle." This entirely
voluntary program will cost corporations nothing and achieve little--just
what the K Street lobbyists ordered.
Despite the best efforts of the Clinton administration, the concept
of extended producer responsibility is spreading. The Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an association
of the world's most developed economies, is promoting EPR as a "promising
new public policy tool" that could "minimize waste by transferring
substantial or complete financial (and physical) responsibilities
to private enterprises for managing their products at the post-consumption
phase." Ignoring protests from the United States, the OECD is drawing
up guidelines on how countries can best implement EPR policies.
At a December 1998 OECD conference on EPR, Clare Lindsay, head
of the Environmental Protection Agency's extended product responsibility
project, said the United States "stresses collaboration and partnerships
over command and control." "We have a different philosophy here,"
she noted, "[which] acknowledges that producers play a central role
in reducing the environmental impacts of their products, but recognizes
that they can not always do this alone."
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," Elizabeth Cotsworth, acting director of EPA's Office of
Solid Waste, told a May 1999 conference on EPR.
But this is the global economy, and any American-based multinational
that wishes to do business in the European Union must first conform
to its standards. Consequently, EPR in Europe is already forcing
U.S. companies to assume environmental responsibility for their
For instance, in February the European Union passed EPR regulations
on vehicles, against the wishes of the world automakers. By 2006,
vehicles sold in Europe must contain no heavy metals, such as lead,
mercury or cadmium, and be manufactured from recyclable materials.
In addition, automakers will be held responsible for final disposal
of the car. This is good news for the U.S. environment, says Charles
Griffith of the Clean Car Campaign, a coalition operating out of
the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Europe is driving this
and Japan is following fairly closely on what Europe is doing,"
he says. "Consequently, U.S. companies are basically gearing up
to meet the European requirements. It will be hard to come up with
separate designs for the European and U.S. markets, so the U.S.
automakers are going to seek to meet the European Union phaseouts
across the board."
Understanding that EPR threatens the corporate bottom line, the
office of the U.S. Trade Representative has teamed up with U.S.
business interests to attack Europe's EPR regulations as unfair
trade practices. The current battle focuses on E.U. plans to implement
EPR regulations for all products that contain electrical circuits.
The proposal, known as Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment
(WEEE), would phase out the use of toxic metals (lead, cadmium,
mercury) in the production of consumer items like refrigerators
and desktop computers, require products to contain a certain percentage
of recycled material, set design standards that would allow computer
equipment to be more easily upgraded, and generally make the manufacturers
of that equipment assume financial and legal responsibility for
their products throughout their entire life cycle.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is spearheading support for
WEEE in the United States through it's Clean Computer Campaign.
The campaign is focusing on holding producers responsible for clean
product design and pushing them to take back computers at the end
of their life. The coalition is taking their cue from Sweden, which
has been the leader in implementing legislation to apply EPR to
computer manufacturers. Mans Lonnroth of the Swedish environment
ministry observed in 1997, "The product developers of electronic
products are introducing chemicals on a scale which is totally incompatible
with the scant knowledge of their environmental or biological characteristics."
The Toxics Coalition's literature notes that computers are made
from more than 1,000 materials, many of them highly toxic, including
chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, toxic metals,
acids, plastics and plastic additives. Yet an estimated 75 percent
of all computers ever purchased in the United States are currently
stored in people's attics and basements. By 2004, there will be
an estimated 315 million obsolete computers in the United States,
most of them will be destined for landfills or incinerators. Already,
consumer electronic products account for about 40 percent of lead
found in landfills, where it can leach and contaminate drinking
A number of trade associations, led by the American Electronics
Association (whose members include Microsoft, IBM, Motorola and
Intel), and including the American Plastics Council, the International
Cadmium Association and the Lead Industries Association, are adamantly
opposed to WEEE. They lobbied the Clinton administration for help,
and the administration was happy to oblige.
U.S. opposition to the WEEE environmental initiative is spelled
out in a November 1998 cable, leaked to the Toxics Coalition, sent
by State Department economist Jonathan Mudge (at the behest of the
U.S. Trade Representative) to the U.S. Mission in Brussels. Mudge
instructed all embassies in E.U. capitals to "highlight U.S. concerns
about the draft directives."
Providing a list of talking points, Mudge suggested that U.S. diplomats
explain that "imposing the entire cost of taking back and recycling
electrical products on the manufacturer" poses an undue burden on
corporations. "This expense could be shared with municipalities
and other actors," he wrote. "We urge [the European Union] to work
with industry and other interested parties to devise a more efficient,
less trade restrictive approach to meet its goals."
The European Union is unlikely to cave in to U.S. pressure to abandon
EPR. What's more, U.S. actions contradict the professed intentions
of Clinton, who, in a March 15, 1999, address to a WTO symposium
on trade and the environment, said, "We must do more to ensure that
spirited economic competition among nations never becomes a race
to the bottom. We should be leveling environmental protections up,
But like so much of Clinton's lofty rhetoric, his words are belied
by his actions.