Science, Tech & Environment

EU environmental laws make US greener


European recycling (Image by Wikimedia user Zaf, (cc: by-sa))

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In Europe, producers are required to take responsibility for the environmental impact of the entire lives of their products—from the time it’s made to the time it’s thrown in the trash.

“Whoever causes damage to the environment is responsible, also in financial terms, to repair it or to minimize it right from the beginning,” Klaus Kirgler, European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment in Brussels, told “The World.”

This “producer pays” model has been a cornerstone of the European Union since it was founded in 1993. The EU recently extended the principle to chemicals, passing a Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances (REACH) law that forced producers, instead of the government, to prove that their chemicals are safe.

The concept of producer responsibility has been slower to catch on in the United States. “The U.S. has been lagging,” according to Darryl Ditz of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., “lagging behind the Europeans and lagging behind many of the states here in our country.”

States including Washington, Maine, and California have enacted laws that require manufacturers to take back electronic waste, pharmaceuticals, paint and other products. The federal government, on the other hand, has passed no such laws.

U.S. companies, however, have already started to go greener, based in part on stricter European standards. The chemical companies Dow and DuPont are already complying with the European standards because they sell in the EU market. And knowing that various groups, including the Obama administration, have been pushing for greater regulation of chemicals, European-style laws may not be far behind.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."