RoHS Starts to Bite

It’s been one year since the introduction in the EU of the RoHS Directive—a year without prosecution... barely.

Directive 2002/95/EC, also more popularly known as the EU-RoHS directive, came into force on 1 July 2006. The sky hasn’t fallen in, but RoHS legislation has had a huge effect on the electronics industry. It’s being “policed” by an increasing number of EU RoHS enforcement bodies, some more expediently than others.

With the notable exception of the U.K., the establishment of enforcement authorities across the EU has been slow apart from Denmark (responsible for the only “near” prosecution to date) and Belgium. In most, but not all, cases, we’ve seen a body appointed and staff allocated. There’s also been significant purchasing of XRF equipment for product analysis. However, the protocols to implement enforcement are still in development. Penalties are inconsistent, ranging from around €7300 maximum in a U.K. magistrate’s court to up to €20 million in Belgium.

Although non-electronics-related, an investigative TV programme in Denmark looked into a possible RoHS violation involving disposable cameras, which tipped off RoHS officials. The cameras were withdrawn from sale for further testing and the company was asked for documentation.

A spokesperson for Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency was concerned, due to allegations that the Danish importer didn’t take sufficient care to ensure compliance documents were valid: “They basically don’t care because they are in a market where price defines everything.”

From a design engineer’s point-of- view, the main focus of time and effort was before the implementation date of the standard. To become compliant, companies invested heavily to find RoHS-compliant alternatives to existing components. Specifically, great engineering effort was required to ensure that products could withstand the increased solder temperatures associated with lead-free, whilst of course performing to a similar or better standard.

One year on, designers are now getting a good idea if their design and process changes have had any negative effect on reliability of their products in the field. In some cases where there have been problems, behind-thescenes engineering effort is still being implemented to get the pre- RoHS reliability and performance back into products.

Since RoHS is a single-market directive, the scope is supposed to be the same in all member states. However, there are variations. The Netherlands, for example, regards car radios sold to consumers in retail outlets as falling within the scope of the legislation— contrary to the EC’s published guidance. Equipment such as electric heaters and air conditioning that’s fixed to walls are regarded as being “in scope” by some states, but outside in others. These inconsistencies can make the design engineer’s task even more arduous.

THE ENFORCERS

Two approaches are being used for enforcement: audit of documentation and selective analysis of purchased products. In addition, the Customs authorities of some, but not all, member states are checking imports. The experience of the U.K.’s National Weights & Measurements Laboratory (NWML) is that currently over 90% of products don’t fully comply, with most having just one or two components present that contain an RoHS substance.

Rework of lead-free soldered products is a particularly common problem. The use of obsolete components that have tin/lead termination coatings and screws with hexavalentchromium passivation coatings are other common causes of noncompliance. Where a non-compliant product is identified, the approach taken by NWML is to work with the producer toward full compliance.

Many producers have already been contacted for documentation to show that all reasonable steps were taken to ensure compliance. Though some have been slow to respond, so far no one has been prosecuted. According to NWML, 15% of those contacted claimed, incorrectly in the opinion of the authorities, that their products are out of the scope of RoHS and another 15% had inadequate documentation.

EXEMPTIONS—AN ESCAPE ROUTE?

Design engineers need to be aware of exemptions, of which there are now 29 in place. The review of a further 23 has just been completed, recommendations pending, taking the total number evaluated to over 100. The Commission is continuing to receive requests for exemptions, since they currently have no time restriction. However, many requests have been made for “life-time-buys” and for the continued use of lead solders, but all of these were rejected.

The exemption request procedure is very lengthy, some having taken several years from the date of application to be granted. This presents a difficult problem for designers and manufacturers. Many cannot yet produce compliant products because they believe that there are no alternatives for specific applications. Some manufacturers stopped making products altogether, whereas the majority continue to produce them in the hope that the authorities will be lenient while the exemption request is under review.

Around the EU member states, recent developments include a legal challenge to the Belgian interpretation of what constitutes deca-BDE. The Danish published two reports that will be presented in the European Court as evidence against the deca-BDE exemption, while Norway is planning an extension to their current ban on mercury.

IT’S NOT OVER YET—“ROHS2” IS COMING!

RoHS continues to evolve. A review of the current RoHS legislation is underway, with the European Commission intending to present results in 2008. Included in the scope of the review are topics such as:

  • Products to be included within scope.
  • The list of substances and whether others should be considered.
  • The relationship between WEEE and RoHS, and would the separation of RoHS from the WEEE scope prevent significant inconsistencies?
  • Expanding on the scope of spare parts that would prevent equipment from reaching end-of-life prematurely.
  • Providing clarity on definitions such as “put on the market” and “spare parts.”
  • Driving a more coherent approach with other EU legislation and seeking a common approach to enforcement.
  • A mechanism for exemption applications and how they can be reviewed more quickly.

A full impact assessment will be done on all proposed measures.

The RoHS directive has already met its main aim, with compliant products reducing the quantity of the six RoHS substances used in equipment sold in the EU. Critics point out that no full life-cycle analysis has been carried out, so it’s not known whether the alternative materials are better or worse for the environment. Also, significant quantities of RoHS substances are still used in exempt forms, in excluded products, and in other industries that don’t yet have these restrictions.

However, there are benefits, since RoHS is just one of several pieces of EU legislation that aims to reduce the use of toxic materials. Recycling of WEEE should be safer, particularly in third-world countries that use uncontrolled recycling processes. Recycling RoHS-compliant equipment will expose workers to a reduced quantity of toxic substances, although this doesn’t eliminate all risks; only better controls of the processes can accomplish this goal.

In the future, production of RoHS-compliant equipment will be commonplace, while lead-solder usage will become increasingly unusual. Products that don’t currently need to comply with RoHS will become more affected by the ongoing changes within the electronics industry. Some products in the medical, monitoring and control, automotive, and aerospace industries have already changed, with many others becoming “RoHS-compliant” over the next few years.

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