Electronic Design

The World Is Ready For RoHS (Whether You Are Or Not)

The deadline for compliance with the EU's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances has arrived. Are your products RoHS ready? A survey of Electronic Design readers reveals a mixed bag (see the figure).

The elimination of lead and other hazardous substances has created some significant challenges for both chipmakers and OEM manufacturers. The additional costs and efforts have been worth it, though, because the RoHS directive is a big step forward in addressing the environmental impact the electronics industry has on our planet. Two watchdog groups monitoring U.S. progress on this front, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and the Computer Take Back Campaign (CTBC), make it their mission to promote public health, worker safety, and environmental issues.

The SVTC's goal is to raise the standards in the U.S. to become at least comparable to Europe and Japan. That means matching not only RoHS, but also the EU's law for the taking back of electronics by manufacturers the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE).

The SVTC says that the U.S. is making some progress in key areas, including toxic materials reduction and an increase in recycled and recoverable content. But our country still is the planet's largest producer of e-waste. According to the CTBC, as many as 600 million computers will soon be obsolete in the U.S.

As we all know, most of these computers are languishing in basements and attics. The CTBC says the mothballed devices could create a 22-story monolith of e-waste to cover the entire 472 square miles of Los Angeles sprawl and the pile would contain a total of more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. Enough of these machines have already been thrown into the garbage to account for 40% of the heavy metals in landfills.

And our problem is global. Up to 80% of electronic waste is exported from the U.S. to countries such as China, India and Nigeria, where low-wage workers including children manually dismantle waste to recover some valuable materials. This results in extreme toxic exposure to the waste for workers, as well as in serious soil and water contamination, the SVTC reports.

New legislation is appearing in the U.S. But electronics manufacturers are concerned that without a federal bill, they could face a patchwork of up to 50 different regulations. Many states have introduced e-waste bills. Several have recycling laws on the books.

Washington and Maine laws require producers of electronics to pay the costs of collection, transportation, and recycling. In California, consumers pay a recycling fee of $10 per device at the point of purchase. The two models producer pay versus consumer pay are being debated at the national level here. Meanwhile, the WEEE directive makes manufacturers liable for products throughout their lifecycle.

HP and Dell get high marks from the SVTC because they have their own take-back programs. HP and Dell separated themselves from the rest of the manufacturers through their commitment to producer responsibility in the U.S., says the SVTC in its annual "report card". That sets a great precedent. Since HP is ranked as the largest buyer of electronic components, its environmental policies have a real impact.

Company-run take-back programs make good sense because they set the stage for thoughtful engineering methods to be applied to electronics recycling. As you readers know better than anyone, these products are complex, and they shouldn't be tossed into the trash can or smashed apart and melted down in the back alleys of Nigeria or China. They contain small quantities of diverse hazardous materials and require expertise in proper handling to safely optimize extraction and reuse.

Manufacturer take-back programs ensure that lifecycle concerns are fed back to the products designers, who may in turn consider alternatives in design and/or the development of new materials. The intelligent design that goes into the products can be matched by intelligent design in the recovery and reuse of components. What's more, intelligent disposal can be the basis for new, safe industry here in the U.S.

According to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, 400 companies in the U.S. are considered electronics recyclers, a number that's sure to grow if the U.S. adopts a WEEE-like initiative of its own. That sure beats exporting the problem and outsourcing the recycling via an underground, unsafe cottage industry in the hidden corners of the globe.

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