Green From the Get-Go

In April, the so-goes-the-nation state of Maine passed a law that was a breakthrough in green thinking: It told American carmakers they are responsible for cleaning up a toxic pollutant in their product – even though that product had changed hands many times.

The pollutant is mercury, a liquid metal once used widely by Detroit in switches for lights in trunks and hoods, and a hardy contaminant in waterways.

Even though US carmakers say they will end all such mercury use next year, Maine wants them to pay auto junkyards to properly remove the switches from millions of old cars and then recover the toxin. Otherwise, mercury will be set loose when the cars are shredded for metal recycling. (Europe banned mercury switches a decade ago; Asian carmakers never used them.)

Now other states, such as Massachusetts, may soon follow Maine's lead. It's the latest, perhaps boldest, attempt to hold manufacturers legally responsible for the end-of-life disposal of their products' contaminants or other environmental waste.

The drive to force companies, rather than taxpayers, to recycle or manage the waste of their wares – known in Europe as "extended producer responsibility" – will help push product designers and engineers to build cleaner products, or at least ones that can be easily recycled.

Computer makers have led some recycling efforts to clean out toxic metals in old PCs, monitors, and printers. But they also must find nontoxic substitute materials, or build machines in which toxic parts can be removed easily (a sort of "garbage-in, garbage-out" concept). Most used PCs still linger in attics or basements.

Phasing out toxic materials in machines won't be easy or quick. In the meantime, companies can make equipment that's upgradable so consumers can keep products longer ("planned nonobsolescence"). They can make dismantling easier and less costly, a sort of "design for recycling."

Green-minded consumers might even pay extra for low-polluting products designed to be kept or reused.

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