Reducing Toxic Chemicals through Ecology’s Product Replacement Program

Historically, regulatory action for pollution prevention aims at reducing tailpipe and smokestack emissions. Though these actions are successful, they prove to be time consuming, labor intensive, and time prohibited. By working with manufacturers to substitute chemicals out of products before they enter the environment, Ecology’s Product Replacement Program recognizes a more proactive, sustainable, and cost-effective way to keep toxins out of the environment.

From furniture to cookware, consumer products remain one of the largest sources of toxic chemicals in the environment. In 2019, Washington Legislature allocated funds for the Washington State Department of Ecology to remove the most harmful chemicals from commerce. With this, the Product Replacement Program was born, aiming to address contamination through reimbursement funding, collection and disposal services, and providing businesses with alternatives to toxic products.

Currently, there are five product replacement programs to address the most hazardous chemical combinations impacting Washington, as determined by Ecology’s Chemical Action Plans. These programs include:

  1. Perchloroethylene (PERC) dry cleaning chemical
  2. Firefighting foam
  3. Recreational foam
  4. Mercury thermostats
  5. Auto degreasers

PERC Dry Cleaners

Since its inception, the Product Replacement Program has worked with a myriad of businesses across Washington State including dry cleaners, fire departments, and gyms. Current initiatives include working with over 100 dry cleaners to find alternatives to PERC, a commonly used stain removal solvent that poses health risks to employees and customers. This program offers dry cleaning businesses up to $40,000 to switch to hydrocarbon solvent cleaning systems or wet cleaning. So far, around half of the 100 PERC dry cleaners have switched to a preferred alternative.  

Firefighting Foam

The Product Replacement Program is in the process of finalizing a collection and disposal program to minimize the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); an acronym for around 5,000 man-made chemicals that remain toxic to both the environmental and public health. This disposal program responds to Washington State’s 2018 law restricting the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and personal protection equipment (PPE). When finalized, Ecology will work with fire departments around the state to collect and safely dispose of firefighting foam and PPE containing these harmful chemicals. As of 2021, 80 fire departments across Washington state have signed up to participate in the disposal program.

Recreational Foam

The Product Replacement Program has created a pilot program with gyms, schools, and recreational facilities across Washington State to replace foam blocks that may contain flame retardant chemicals harmful to human health, with non-toxic alternatives. Though this program mainly focuses on blocks found in foam pits, other flame-retardant foams may be considered based on funding and demand.

Automotive Degreasers

The Product Replacement Program will reimburse automotive facilities who switch out solvent-based degreasers with safer alternatives. Reimbursement amounts will depend on the type of alternatives chosen, with degreasers divided into 4 tiers (platinum, gold, silver, bronze) based on the initial product cost and safeness. Water-based alternatives are most preferred, having low emissions and less hazardous properties compared to solvents. Businesses who switch to water-based products will receive the largest reimbursement amounts, as required parts and equipment are more costly to install. Smaller reimbursements will be given to businesses who switch to solvent-based degreasers without chemicals of highest concern.

Mercury Thermostats

The Product Replacement Program is encouraging businesses to participate in a national program developed by the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC) to collect and properly dispose of mercury-containing thermostats across the nation. This non-profit stewardship organization has over 3,400 collection locations in 47 states, allowing HVAC wholesale distributors, retailers who sell thermostats in the continental U.S., and any approved municipal/county HHW, waste, solid waste or universal waste location to easily dispose of wall-mount mercury-containing thermostats.