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EU Call For E-Waste Restrictions To Echo Globally

Strict European Union policies on electronic and chemical waste will influence markets, the environment, and regulations worldwide, according to two academic experts examining the issue.

K.C. Jones

January 5, 2007

3 Min Read

Strengthening European Union policies on electronic and chemical waste will reverberate around the world, according to two academic experts examining the issue.

Stacy VanDeveer, a visiting fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, and Henrik Selin, an assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, said that three strict EU policies would influence markets, the environment, and regulations worldwide. The pair outlined those impacts in a recent article in the journal Environment and in interviews with InformationWeek.com.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that the world's population discards 20 to 50 million tons of electrical and electronic waste each year and predicts the mount will increase by 3% to 5% each year. Much of that waste ends up in China.

In the last five years, the European Union developed and adopted major e-waste directives, which members are beginning to implement this year. They require electronics manufacturers to offer free disposal of consumers' used equipment and prohibit the export of hazardous waste to developing countries for disposal. A more recent rule requires registration, evaluation, and authorization of more than 30,000 chemical substances. The rules put the European Union in the global lead in terms of protecting consumers and the environment, VanDeveer said.

Manufacturers wanting to reach more than 485 million citizens in the European market will be required to meet the standards by reducing the number and amounts of chemicals used their products and taking responsibility for disposal. Most manufacturers want to avoid the costs and inconveniences of trying to meet different standards. Often, they cope by meeting the highest standards.

That means U.S. companies selling computers and electronics in Europe are likely to offer equipment that meets those same "green" standards for sale in the United States, according to VanDeveer. Information released in the European Union regarding chemicals is also likely to give U.S. environmental activists and politicians leverage for implementing stronger policies here, VanDeveer said.

"In the next couple of years, we're likely to see environmental groups targeting particular producers or retailers in campaigns based on the E.U. rules," he said. "If they can demonstrate that a company can make televisions with none or less of these substances, it strikes me that environmentalists will use that more actively."

Though the Consumer Electronics Association is already calling for a single federal e-waste standard in the United States, Selin said that California and New York are likely to beat the federal government to the punch by adopting strict e-waste rules first. International pressures eventually will force stricter U.S. guidelines, he said.

"So far, the policy in the United States has been to ship it to China," Selin said. "I'm not sure how long China will think this is a good idea. The most practical thing I can think of is to increase recycling. I think the federal government will follow the states."

Critics complain that the EU policies will cost billions and result in job losses, but VanDeveer and Selin said critics' calculations do not include health and environmental costs, which place financial burdens on waste contractors, governments, and individuals. Selin said the burden would eventually shift from the public to the private sector, with manufacturers and consumers sharing the cost.

VanDeveer said that changes would present economic opportunity and job creation in recycling, disposal, and "green" engineering.

"It's possible it will add jobs in the American market," he said. "We currently don't have an extensive system of taking apart and reusing and recycling."

VanDeveer pointed out that several companies like Apple, Dell, and HP are already making components with less hazardous components.

"For some products, we're not talking about big changes, but for others there will be some big changes in how to make those products with fewer or none of those substances," he said.

VanDeveer said the major factors likely to drive increased enforcement and compliance are: individual EU members' resources, the ability of environmental groups to petition and provide evidence of violations in Brussels, competition among collection companies, and a dwindling number of landfills.

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