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The Copper-Free Brake Initiative: How the New Laws Will Impact You

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Starting January 1, 2021, the states of California and Washington will have new regulations on the books. Thanks to the Copper-Free Brake Initiative, it will soon be illegal to install brake pads that contain more than 5% copper. Both states will require copper-free brake pads by 2025. 

As a consumer, you might be wondering how these new laws will affect you. Let’s demystify the Copper-Free Brake Initiative and the subsequent regulations that will govern drivers in select states. 

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Starting January 1, 2021, the states of California and Washington will have new regulations on the books, making it illegal to install brake pads that contain more than 5% copper.

Why Copper-Free Brake Pads?

Copper is often used in brake pads because it dissipates heat quickly, thereby improving braking performance. But copper is also highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life. As the brake pads wear down, the copper from the brake dust gets washed into streams and rivers, harming the wildlife that lives there.   

Brake pad dust accounts for half of the copper entering waterways in urban areas. According to the State of Washington Department of Ecology, 130,000 pounds of copper enter Puget Sound each year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also recognizes the problem of copper pollution, noting that 1.3 million pounds of the material were released into California’s environment in 2010. 

Copper pollution is a serious threat to the environment and our wildlife populations, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Copper-Free Brake Initiative to reduce the use of copper in brake pads. 

What is the Copper-Free Brake Initiative?

In 2015, the EPA, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and select automotive groups signed an agreement to promote the reduction of copper (and certain other materials) in brake pads. The objective is to limit the amount of copper to less than 5% by weight in 2021 and 0.5% by 2025.

Other materials that can be harmful to humans and wildlife—including antimony, asbestos, chromium, lead, mercury, and cadmium—will also be phased out. 

Following the initiative, California and Washington have passed new regulations banning the sale of brake pads with more than 5% copper. In Washington, the rule is referred to as the Better Brakes Law. 

Beginning on January 1, 2021, brake pads sold and distributed in California and Washington must contain less than 5% copper by weight. By 2025, the amount of copper must be reduced even further to 0.5%. 

While these regulations currently only apply to the states of Washington and California, brake manufacturers have decided to reduce (and, in some cases, eliminate) copper materials in their products.

In this way, the Pacific Coast is paving the way toward an overall reduction in copper across the country. 

How Will the New Brake Pad Regulations Impact You? 

Currently, California and Washington are the only states that will require low-copper brakes by 2021. The new regulations only affect those locations. 

Still, millions of drivers in those two states have copper brake pads on their vehicle—and you might be one of them. 

One important thing to note is that the new laws don’t apply to the existing brakes on your car. You will only need to purchase low-copper (5% or less) pads when your existing brakes wear out and you go to install new pads.

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If the label features a ‘B’ rating and a LeafMark with two black-colored leaves, the pads contain less than 5% copper. 

How to Find Compliant Low-Copper Brake Pads

Brake pads containing less than 5% copper are affordable and readily available online. When shopping for a new set of brake pads, all you need to do is look for the “copper-free” label (featuring a LeafMark) on the product. Here’s how to read the label:

  • If the label features an ‘N’ rating and a LeafMark with three black-colored leaves, the pads are copper-free or contain less than 0.5% by weight. 
  • If the label features a ‘B’ rating and a LeafMark with two black-colored leaves, the pads contain less than 5% copper. 

Brake manufacturers that violate the low-copper statute can be fined $10,000 per occurrence. Yet despite the penalty, there are dishonest vendors distributing counterfeit low-copper brake pads throughout the market. 

To avoid purchasing illegal brake pads, be sure to buy your brakes from a reputable merchant.

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