Do government “Energy Star” ratings for major appliances take into account their “cradle-to-grave” impacts, or are they just concerned with energy efficiency?
—Fred von Mechow, via e-mail
The Energy Star program, set up back in 1992, is designed to help consumers determine the energy efficiency of various appliances, home electronics, office equipment and lighting. All such items for sale in the U.S. come with an EnergyGuide label, which indicates how much energy they will consume over the course of a typical year, and how much that energy will cost, detailing how it compares to similar models.
Those units that are especially energy-efficient—based on standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DoE)—receive an Energy Star, signifying them as preferred environmental choices. Clearly the program is designed as an incentive for competing brands to lower their products” energy consumption and costs over time.
The program is very helpful to consumers who want to do the right thing environmentally while also saving on energy bills, but it is not a “cradle-to-grave” assessment. “Cradle-to-grave,” as the term implies, measures an appliance’s environmental impact over the course of its entire life, and it counts other factors besides energy use and costs.
German and Scandinavian manufacturers, for example, thanks to stringent “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) laws in place there, must do more than maximize the energy efficiency of their products. They must also eliminate hazardous materials from both the appliances” components and their manufacturing processes (i.e. “cradle”), and make them in such a way that maximizes their recyclability and reusability so as to keep them out of landfills (“grave”). In fact, European EPR laws even require companies to take back some of their products at the end of their useful life, removing the burden from the consumer as well as from local community waste handling systems.
And with passage last year of “Directive 2005/32/EC” by the European Union (EU), similar laws will apply for any manufacturer—domestic or otherwise—that wants to sell appliances to Europe’s 400-million-strong consumer market. The goal is to encourage manufacturers to assess the full lifecycle impacts of their products, which would ideally also lead to the elimination of unnecessary parts and of wasteful, extraneous packaging. The directive becomes law across the continent in 2007.
Meanwhile, strong industry lobbies have thus far prevented similar legislation from taking hold in the U.S., though some state and local governments have expressed interest in European-style take-back laws. A few forward-thinking computer makers, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have started take-back programs voluntarily in order to salvage some components for re-use while looking good to environmentally-conscious consumers. But for the most part the trend has not caught on for American manufacturers and there are no laws in place to force them to abandon that age-old and not-so-green-friendly principle of “planned obsolescence.”