This is an example of how ecological requirements can not only be rather silly, but can do serious damage to the economy.
The original article is in the Handelsblatt from today, but behind their firewall (at least I couldn't find it online).
Basically, the story has to do with lead and cadmium: both are heavy metals and are due to be phased out of usage in Germany due to ecological requirements.
Of course, the glass industry has a few problems there: adding lead to glass is necessary to work with the refractive index of glass: if you add lead oxide to potassium silicate glass in varying amounts, you get glass with different refractive indices, which allows you to design lenses for the optical industry that perform very strongly. Lead flouroborate glass, doped with rare earths, is used in lasers and their optics.
Cadmium is used for coatings and for filters: adding cadmium to other materials changes the light color when light reflects or is passed through such glass or coatings.
Hence requiring that lead no longer be used in glass means ... ceasing to produce those materials.
Now, the German optical industry, directly and indirectly, employs over 100 000 people. Roughly 1/8th of all industrial activity in Germany is tied in with this industry.
The German glass industry expects that they will be able to get an exemption from this requirement: they can only get one if neither lead nor cadmium can be replaced with other materials or with other technologies.
But not a word about the economics of such a replacement. The only concern is the ecological impact: if an alternative, due to intensive energy use, would lead to more lead being emitted by coal power plants than would be saved by not using lead in production, then the ecological folks will issue such an exemption: otherwise, none.
Basically, there are alternatives (fluoride and other metals), but using these leads to other problems that are just as difficult to solve.
The absurdity of the whole thing?
Once in the glass, these elements are bound to the glass more or less permanently, i.e. they cannot endanger the environment in any meaningful way. Worker safety considerations already control how lead and other heavy metals are handled during the production process: this is not the problem here.
The problem is introducing a requirement not to use a material because it could endanger the environment, even though the material in question cannot release those materials into the environment.
That is ecological stupidity. Or, more exactly, the stupidity of those formulating ecological policy with absolutely no consideration to the real world.
The costs? Simple: if the industry is told that using lead and cadmium are not permitted, then the industry will disappear. There are no meaningful alternatives to lead and cadmium right now, and while one manufacturer has brought out the first glass produced without heavy metals, it is a glass ceramic and cannot be used in the optics industry.
What will happen is that the industry will simply move elsewhere. More exactly, the industry elsewhere will pick up the demand that is currently being serviced in Germany.
All for the sake of the environment, even though the environment isn't endangered by the lead and cadmium in optical glass.
The costs? Apparently the ecologists simply don't care.
Goodbye to Leica, goodbye to Zeiss, goodbye to Schneider-Kreuznach and goodbye to 100 000 jobs in the rest of the industry.
Improvement to the environment?
If it wasn't so tragic, that'd be priceless...