Legally Green: Mandating a Cleaner Environment

Getty Images
Getty Images

Thirteen states from California to Rhode Island would like to impose strict emissions standards on new cars. Another 23 state legislatures would like to do away with the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags. Oregon has kicked a flame retardant out of children's pajamas; Wisconsin has banned another compound from toys for tots. Washington is taking copper out of auto brake pads, while Gainesville, Florida, is promoting the use of electricity from wind farms.


Across the country, state legislatures and city councils are adopting a wide range of measures aimed at improving the local and regional environment and reducing emissions that contribute to global climate change. This accelerating spate of green laws affecting both consumer and corporate behavior sometimes reflects peculiarly local needs and, at other times, provides the framework for national legislation dealing with air and water quality, or consumer protection.

In the area of chemicals in everyday usage, the recalls of several Chinese-made products spurred legislatures to develop their own chemical screening programs.

"The states are often moving ahead of the government," explained Scott Hendrick of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "If there is a perception that the federal government is not properly fulfilling its role of protecting the public, then the state goes ahead.

"That was the response to the recalls of toys in 2007 where there was a perception in state legislatures that the federal government wasn't protecting children and passed their own legislation. Those laws became the basis for the Federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which passed last year."

By the time the federal law passed, said Hendrick, 18 states had laws removing chemical phthalates from toys. The same principle holds for environmental issues far above ground.

"Most of the nation's federal air quality laws have some history in state clean air acts," said Adam Schafer, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. "As for climate change legislation, the states have been working on climate change policy for the past ten years.


California, Schafer said, adopted exhaust emission standards for automobiles and businesses in 2007 and, since then, ten states have followed suit: "Those states are trying to figure out how to meet their reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and set up regulations and policies to reduce emissions."

Towards that goal, 13 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region have joined in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which set up a cap-and-trade system for air pollution credits among utilities and businesses. Across the country, seven states and four Canadian provinces have joined in the Western Climate Initiative to set up a similar system, which includes power plants and the transportation sector. And the Midwest Governors' Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord is developing a similar framework for air quality improvements for Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba, Canada.


While Congress is still dithering on the ins and outs of a climate bill, several states have moved to require power companies to buy and use renewable energy. In most cases, that involves imposition of a "feed tariff," in which the utilities are required to buy back excess electricity generated from solar systems on residential and commercial property or to purchase wind power when it is available.

To help offset the high upfront costs of installing renewable energy systems, 18 states from Hawaii to Virginia passed Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), laws since 2009. These allow cities to issue bonds to underwrite residential and commercial installation of solar and other systems, with the costs paid back as part of the homeowners' annual tax assessment. The PACE system keeps the cost of these installations with the property, rather than following the homeowner as a personal debt if the house is sold.


Bowing to local interests, the definition of renewable energy has been stretched a bit. It includes "advanced nuclear power" in Ohio, and both gasified and waste coal in Pennsylvania.

New York State, however, decided not to wait. Last month, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation turned down a water permit for the Indian Point nuclear power plants. According to the state agency, the plant causes the death of about two billion fish annually when they are sucked into its massive heat exchanger, or when they swim through the hot water that is dumped back into the river. The state has set guidelines for all of its major water users - which it found kill some 17 billion fish annually - and instructed them to stop using the rivers and bays, or shut down.


Cutting waste streams and reducing the amount of toxic and non-biodegradable products flowing to municipal and state landfills is a concern for many legislators.  The $.05 fee on disposable paper and plastic bags at stores selling food or alcohol by the District of Columbia is in the same arena as fees imposed on returnable bottles in ten states. North Carolina's legislature banned the use of plastic carry-out bags in the state's fragile barrier island counties.

The latest area in landfill management involves electronic waste, whose complex systems often include heavy metals such as lead and mercury. "Several states have set up programs requiring manufacturers to take back their e-waste products when they are done," said Schafer. "It puts the burden of financing on the manufacturers, giving them a cradle-to-grave responsibility for their products."


Maine is one of the latest states to adopt e-waste legislation, requiring the makers of compact fluorescent light bulbs to set up collection programs to recover the mercury in those energy-efficient products.

For more information, see the Environmental Health Legislation Database of the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Roger Witherspoon writes on environmental issues at