Eco-Ratings for All

July 1, 2009
“Consumers..want to know the materials in the product are safe, it was made well and it was produced in a responsible way...

by Carlos David Mogollón, Managing Editor

“Consumers... want to know the materials in the product are safe, it was made well and it was produced in a responsible way.”
— Wal-Mart CEO Mike Dunn

Wal-Mart just unveiled its “Sustainable Product Index.” In the announcement, CEO Mike Duke underscores efforts by the world's largest retailer to develop “eco-ratings” for products it sells that might result in global environmental standards retailers can apply to all suppliers. Duke said, “...increasingly [consumers] want information about the entire lifecycle of a product so they can feel good about buying it. They want to know the materials in the product are safe, it was made well and it was produced in a responsible way. We do not see this as a trend that will fade.”

Neither do I.

Several news reports this year support the idea consumers feel strongly about this. Take public reaction to Associated Press reports in its ongoing PharmaWater investigation about pharmaceutical and personal care product (PPCP) residues in drinking water. The investigation's latest report found that 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals were legally released into the nation's waterways in two decades by manufacturers. The AP tracked 22 compounds listed as industrial chemicals by the EPA and pharmaceutical ingredients by the FDA. Its report noted it wasn't clear how much was from drugmakers vs. common pharmaceutical compounds used in manufacturing “because no one tracks those — as drugs.” These include lithium used to make ceramics and treat bipolar disorder; the heart drug nitroglycerin, also used in explosives; and copper in everything from pipes to contraceptives. The antiseptics phenol and hydrogen peroxide account for 92% of the 271 million pounds.

Federal drug and water regulators agree with drugmakers that their manufacturing doesn't contribute significantly to what's being found in water and that the biggest contributors to the environment are consumers who use and excrete the substances, as well as dispose of them inappropriately. But researchers and environmental groups say a lack of required testing by drugmakers and municipal utilities alike amounts to a “don't ask, don't tell” policy.

More recently, we also heard on another subject that falls between EPA and FDA cracks that may lead to heavier regulation of bottled water. As a beverage, bottled water is regulated by the FDA, although it has to conform to EPA drinking water standards. But unlike municipal drinking water providers, according to a GAO report released before Congressional hearings July 8 on “Regulation of Bottled Water,” water bottlers aren't required to notify the public of contamination within 24 hours, use certified labs in testing, retain testing records for at least five years or provide consumer confidence reports? They're also not subject to maximum limits on DEHP (an organic compound used in the manufacture of PVC plastic) or federal oversight of state implementation of safety regulations.

In response, IBWA president Joe Doss outlined FDA rules for “packaged food products” and noted: “Bottled water... is subject to the same general requirements for ingredient labeling, nutrition labeling, and product claims as other beverage products, as well as good manufacturing practices. From a market and legal perspective, bottled water is regulated the same as other beverages such as soft drinks, teas, and juices, which have water as their primary ingredient.”

Doss added that containers have undergone FDA scrutiny prior to use in the marketplace, and it “has determined containers used by the bottled water industry are safe for use with food and beverage products, including bottled water, and do not pose a health risk to consumers.” The GAO recommended the FDA: 1) issue a standard of quality for DEHP, or publish its reasons for not doing so, and 2) implement its findings regarding methods feasible for conveying information to consumers regarding the quality and safety of bottled water.

Two issues not raised in the GAO study were recurring complaints on water extraction and aquifer overdrafting by bottlers and disposal of used water bottles, both of which the industry has hoped would fade away. For the same reasons as Wal-Mart is embarking on its eco-ratings effort, that's not likely. And if Wal-Mart is getting in the ring, this will force a number of manufacturers of consumer goods — including food & beverage processing, the industry focus of this issue — to reevaluate how “sustainable” are their production processes. That bodes well for water and wastewater equipment manufacturers.

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