Does A Greener Future Lie Within The EU’s REACH?

Does A Greener Future Lie Within The EU’s REACH?

Many of us in the electronics industry remember the corporate panic that preceded the full implementation of the European Union’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS). Compliance was mandatory, yet the legislation had inconsistencies that still exist today to some extent. Why, for example, should certain components in the production of photovoltaic cells still contain arsenic and cadmium?

But put aside RoHS for a moment. There is a relatively new European legislative “kid on the block” going by the name of REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals). Just like the RoHS initiative, this legislation’s aims are undeniably laudable. However, many electronics companies have reacted negatively to the way in which it is being handled, leading experts to describe it as a shambles.

And it’s not just negative reactions that are reminiscent of the RoHS debacle. Many companies in the electronics industry have scant knowledge about REACH. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the companies surveyed in the United States were not aware of the implications of this new European legislation.

REACH’s Goals

So what’s REACH about? The REACH initiative was announced in 2007, but the list of substances the legislation will cover won’t be finalised until 2018. REACH aims to cut the number of carcinogens and other very nasty substances such as toxins that have a detrimental effect on human reproduction as well as those that have accumulative toxic effect over a period of time.

Manufacturers of electronic components, subassemblies, and finished products must be able to state if their products use substances of very high concern (SVHCs). Importers to Europe or European manufacturers then must provide an analysis of any SVHCs that represent more than 0.1% by weight in those finished products—and they have to do so within a 45-day period.

Starting in 2011, manufacturers and importers are also required to report this information directly to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) if it is greater than 0.1% by weight. Manufacturers will have to report if they import more than one metric ton of the SVHC into Europe each year as well.

REACH’s Costs

There is no denying that the principles behind REACH are good. But like RoHS, it will put a financial strain on electronics companies, which now have to accurately analyse and report any SVHCs they may employ. And in the longer term, these companies must invest in developing designs and production processes that do not rely on very dangerous substances. Naturally, then, this well-intentioned legislation has its critics.

According to Adam Fletcher, chairman of the Electronic Components Supply Network (escn), REACH is adding new SVHCs on an ad hoc basis, which is causing a huge increase in his member companies’ workload. The association is calling for a single, planned annual release for all new SVHCs to reduce the burden and cost of compliance on its members.

Prime among Fletcher’s concerns is exactly how the level of SVHCs is calculated, and I agree with him. It’s all well and good to quote a level of 0.1% by weight, but product weights vary enormously. A mobile phone weighs a lot less than some telecom basestation units, for example.

Certain European countries now want to alter the quantifying methods and adopt a legislative approach that requires the precise content of every electronic component in any given finished product to be assessed and documented. The extra work, cost, and mountains of paperwork this would entail would be of huge proportions, so it’s no surprise that several of the companies I called to discuss REACH with audibly groaned at the mention of the word.

Add to this scenario the chaotic and cohesion-free manner in which a number of European countries approach the business of finalising international legislation, and it comes as no surprise that stories are circulating in the industry that legislators cannot even cope with fundamental issues such as defining components and finished products.

So between now and 2018, REACH is going to be a burdensome prospect for many electronics companies as they work to design and manufacture products that comply. However, 2018 could be just the beginning of the long-term implications of REACH legislation. At some future point, legislators will determine a sunset date, or the deadline when the use of all SVHCs will be outlawed.

As with so much legislation, there is a but, and in this case it’s a big but. After that date, any manufacturer wishing to continue using a hazardous chemical may seek exemption and authorisation by demonstrating that the “socio-economic benefits from its use outweigh the health risk to society.” Some of those justifications will be interesting to read.

On a more positive note, this sunset date will stimulate R&D budgets and provide a lot of work for many engineers who will need to create designs that function equally well using safer alternative materials. Meanwhile, however, the industry has to grapple with convoluted legislation created by multitudes of committees, and we all know what they ended up calling a horse that was designed by a committee—a camel!

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