Twenty-two years ago, the Pollution Prevention Act marked a significant change in how U.S. companies manage hazardous waste. Shifting away from an “end of the pipe” approach to controlling chemical hazards, it focused on controlling those hazards at their source and marked a major change in how we think about protecting our health and preserving the environment.
Today, we are in the midst of another change, one that will further the vision of pollution prevention by advancing efforts to find safer alternatives to toxic ingredients in consumer products.
Building on the foundational efforts of several countries and at least four states, California has released the nation’s first comprehensive approach for reducing toxics in products. Our proposed Safer Consumer Products Regulation requires manufacturers to ask the questions: “Is this toxic ingredient necessary?” and “Is there a safer alternative?”
The regulation takes pollution prevention to a higher level. P2 programs well understood that finding safer alternatives for the toxic chemicals in our products provides a long-lasting sustainable approach to environmental protection. Instead of reducing the use of chemicals that threaten our health and contaminate our environment, our new approach mandates the rethinking of ingredients during the design phase of a product. That mandate is a fundamental change in the way the department regulates toxics in consumer products.
The alternative assessment process is an essential component of this effort. The assessment affects manufacturers whose products contain one or more ingredients designated as a “chemical of concern” that has the ability to cause health or environmental impacts and where there is evidence of exposure. Boiled down to its most essential element, the assessment is meant to determine if a particular toxic ingredient is necessary, and to compare that ingredient with alternatives, giving consideration to life cycle impacts; impacts on product function; performance and legal requirements; and economic impacts.
If a safer alternative is not feasible, or cannot be found, the department is now authorized to impose a number of regulatory responses including mandating end-of-life management, use restrictions, engineering or administrative controls, the funding of research to design safer alternatives and ultimately a ban on sales in California.
Those following our efforts have witnessed a difficult journey. Like all new approaches, the proposal sparked the passion of industry, environmental and health groups. Since 2008, when the enacting law was signed, debate over the specific language has generated many drafts of the regulation. It's also sparked volumes of public comments. With an understanding that our proposal breaks new ground (coupled with limitations on budgetary resources), our proposal sets forth the modest goal of initially looking at no more than five “priority” products.
It’s a modest beginning to be sure, but it’s also a significant one. Like the visionaries who laid out the principles of pollution prevention more than two decades ago, we understand that we are part of an evolutionary process. Today's new vision points us to a time when we focus less on avoiding “chemicals of concern” and instead turn to processes and ingredients that mimic nature to produce truly non-toxic and biodegradable products.
Twenty-two years later, pollution prevention is still an essential part of our efforts to protect the environment, and this year’s Pollution Prevention Week theme “Safer Chemicals for a Safer World” demonstrates how far our thinking has evolved. While we will never step away from encouraging P2 efforts in various industry sectors, California has the opportunity to put the mandatory “shall” into safer product design and to make a difference by reducing toxic chemicals -- and creating that safe and sustainable vision laid out in 1990.