This October 1, California's long-awaited Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI) regulations will finally kick in. GCI is a set of regulations that will require manufacturers, re-sellers, and retailers to identify dangerous and toxic chemicals, and then substitute alternatives if they want to continue to sell in the state of California.
These regulations, painstakingly written with the input of manufacturing groups, environmental awareness organizations, and legislators from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), apply to companies that sell products in the state, as well as manufacturers in California.
Under the final legislation, manufacturers will be required to review a finalized list of specific chemicals in certain products to determine whether less toxic chemicals could be substituted in their place.
At that point, the manufacturers who make products that the DTSC has said contain toxic chemicals would need to conduct an Alternative Assessment (also called Alternative Analyses), a scientific process of identifying, comparing, and evaluating competing courses of action. In the case of chemical regulation, it is used to determine the relative safety and viability of potential substitutes for existing products or processes that use hazardous chemicals.
Alternatives include drop-in chemical substitutes, material substitution, changes to manufacturing operations, and changes to component/product design. The methodology compares the alternatives to the regulated product and to one another across a variety of attributes, typically including public health impacts, environmental effects, technical performance and economic impacts on the manufacturer and the consumer.
"What these regulations are asking is, 'Are these chemicals you're using to make your product truly necessary,'" said Debbie Raphael of the DTSC. "Is there a safer alternative that works, but doesn't have the same toxic characteristics?"
Since the regulations were first being debated in 2008, they have come under intense scrutiny from manufacturers who are annoyed that they will be further regulated, and also that the Alternative Assessment process will be time-consuming and costly to their bottom line.
After all, California's Green Chemistry initiative is the first in the United States that will demand extensive alternatives analyses and end-of-life product management.
But a closer look at the Alternative Assessments process shows that, at least for this section of the law, there may be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It's entirely possible that few manufacturers who do business in California will be affected.
"The reason this is such a big deal is because, for the first time, legislators are not saying [they are banning this chemical; [they are giving you a way out and still make that product," said Dr. Meg Schwarzman, a research scientist at the University of California Berkeley's School of Public Health, who helped craft the initiative.
She added that the law requires companies to question whether a chemical is truly necessary to make a give product. "But once you get through the hype, these are fairly limited regulations," she said.
To start with, the DTSC is only planning to identify between three and five products per year that are being made with toxic or hazardous chemicals.
According to Carl Palmer, the branch chief for safer consumer products and workplaces at the DTSC, the watchdog group will be looking for candidate chemicals. "We're looking at products to go after where we consider what is the exposure level, and which chemicals are impacting people," Palmer told me. "We're not necessarily looking for the worst, or the 'most bad,' but we're looking for things that because of their nature, pose some kind of potential harm for the environment. There are other considerations as well, but clearly a candidate chemical is something that is harmful."
Once the list of chemicals that DTSC has identified is released, manufacturers of product that contain those chemicals will be notified. Schwarzman stressed that DTSC isn't going to "suggest a solution, but they are going to say, 'this is dangerous, and you need to find a way to replace it.'"
The DTSC Alternative Assessments process is more complicated, of course. Beginning October 1, the DTSC will have six months to declare which "priority products" they will be looking at.
Once a manufacturer is notified that their product contains toxic chemicals, the company will have 30 to 60 days to respond to the notification. After that, the company has approximately 180 days to come up with some alternative solutions to that product's chemical composition.
"We're looking to find some 'show-stoppers,'" said Bob Boughton of the DTSC. "What I mean is that during the Alternative Assessment, a manufacturer might determine that one of the chemicals involved would be too expensive to try to replace. It might be an economic decision where they find they need a certain chemical characteristic, and it might not be economically available or feasible for them."
Once those 180 days are up, the manufacturer needs to submit its first Alternative Assessment report, which would be reviewed by DTSC to see if satisfactory changes have been made.
The DTSC will help guide manufacturers through the process and offer frameworks for the Alternative Assessment, and will offer the possibility of a waiver if a manufacturer can make the case that an alternative isn't possible; in that case the manufacturer will have to label the product telling the public that a certain chemical in the product is dangerous.
The waiver would basically offer an extension to the company to continue research into alternative solutions.
With only five candidate chemicals identified per year, the law is not likely to affect entire sectors of manufacturing, Schwarzman said. "You've got areas like furniture, cars, clothing -- those manufacturers are not the ones who will suffer. It's the chemical companies," she said.
"But who will benefit," Schwarzman continued, "are all the businesses who are working in the dark, the manufacturers who don't know what has gone into their products before it gets to them. Those chemicals are unknown to them, and now they will hopefully have a much better idea at what's in their products."
If companies are still not able or willing to adjust their chemical formula in making a product after going through the Alternative Assessment process, Palmer said he felt confident that DTSC had enough authority to levy whatever sanctions were deemed appropriate.
"There may be people who may not be doing what they're supposed to be doing," Palmer said. "Our regulatory response will be based on the information we get. With the tools we have, we have a lot of opportunity to make sure the rules are enforced."
We probably won't know for years how effective California's Green Initiative will be, but it is worth noting that the state has usually been far ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental issues, and for the public's own good. This may be another case where the state leads the way.