Electronic Design

It's Time To Take Out The Trash

Global environmental programs hammer companies to clean up their products, but designers express concerns their firms may not be ready.

Comedian George Carlin seems to have unwittingly captured the attitude of much of the electronics industry in the daily musings of his 2005 calendar. On August 12, he looked at the American Businessman's 10 Steps to Product Development. Question 5, "Will it harm the environment?" was halfway between "Can I cut corners in design?" and "Will it force smaller competitors out of business?"

Could Carlin have heard about the European Union's (EU's) Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives? If so, how would he respond? Hopefully, he would respond better than many industry companies that, even at this late date, may not meet the deadline for compliance with either RoHS or WEEE.

Only 54.9% of Electronic Design readers responding to the online survey said they are "very confident" or "confident" that their companies will fully comply with RoHS by the July 1, 2006 deadline. Barely more than half (51.7%) indicated they were "very confident" or "confident" their original design manufacturer (ODM) or electronic manufacturing service (EMS) company would fully comply with RoHS by the directive's deadline.

Some respondents took a dim view of the entire process. "This is just an attempt by people to close markets to foreign competition and sell new expensive products to manufacturers," says Paul Dickerson, technical process engineer at Matric, a contract manufacturer and designer. Dickerson also suggests that lead-free products will require more energy to process. "Is this not going to be bad for the environment?" he asks.

David Figueroa, a senior systems engineer with Constellation Technology Corp., says his company's products will suffer due to the lack of fundamental component availability, such as junction FET devices used in video amplifiers and high-impedance amplifier front ends. "The choices are becoming limited," he says. "Most of our products require special handling to address hazardous materials used in their manufacture."

Staff development engineer Wyn Robertson of Coherent Inc., maker of lasers and laser-measurement tools, says his biggest concern about meeting RoHS requirements is "getting it all done in time." He also worries about ending up with obsolete products when the RoHS deadline kicks in next year. "Some products were teetering on the brink anyway," he says. "RoHS will push them over the edge."

RoHS has received most of the industry's attention. Yet some industry executives and engineers believe another EU directive may be even more daunting.

Blowing the deadline

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive requires electronics manufacturers and "producers" to provide takeback programs for the collection, treatment, recovery, and recycling of end products sold in EU member states, as well as Norway and Switzerland. In its simplest terms, WEEE rules include any electronic product with a battery and an electric cord.

Under WEEE, a company that sells equipment using its own brand name on equipment made by another manufacturer is defined as a producer. Collection can be from municipal waste sites or local collection sites, but not from consumers.

WEEE also lets producers comply either individually or collectively by joining what the EU calls a "compliance solution organization." These membership-based groups would be equipped to comply with the directive. Professional recyclers are likely to collect the majority of WEEE-related products from local authority waste sites.

WEEE became "law" on August 13. But with the exception of most major OEMs, only a small percentage of industry companies seems to have taken WEEE seriously enough to make the deadline, which they must do because they can register with any EU member country.

"Many manufacturers are unaware, poorly informed, or confused about the requirements and implications regarding preparation for WEEE compliance," says Leonie Tipton, vice president of Global Supply Chain Programs at Arrow Electronics.

"The August 13 deadline is not really a date of compliance, but simply a date at which producers must register within each EU member state they sell into," says Paul Chinery, managing director of Dionics Plc, a U.K.-based distributor. Moreover, he says, some countries (Austria, Finland, Germany, and others) do not require registration unless the producer has a registered address or legal entity in that country. In these situations, either the distributor or agent in that country inherits producer responsibility if one exists, or the end user (for direct sales) is responsible for disposal or recycling.

"I have heard nothing of penalties being issued for non-registration," said Chinery. "One must assume that due to the complexity and diverse implementation of the legislation, governments are offering a degree of flexibility. Obviously the directive must also accommodate newcomers to the market selling products into a member state."

To help smooth the way, especially with the looming deadline, Arrow Electronics produced a guide to WEEE, with expected implementation dates, regulatory body details, and compliance status on a country-by-country basis (www.arrow.com/green). Arrow produced the material with ERA Technology, a U.K.-based technology consultant. Further complicating WEEE compliance, several EU member countries have yet to formulate their own WEEE legislation, as required by the EU. (China, although obviously not an EU member, stated through its State Environmental Protection Administration that it would meet the August 13 deadline.)

The U.K. says it won't be ready to register WEEE-compliant companies until next June. The U.K.'s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) extended the date for collecting and recycling electronic waste in the U.K. to June 2006. This allows more time to establish a working network of facilities for separate collection of e-waste for homeowners.

Morrison & Forester, an environmental-law firm comprising 19 offices around the world, says that undoubtedly producers, retailers, and end users will welcome the respite resulting from the fact that a "U.K.-wide network of WEEE collection facilities will not be ready by the start of next year," as initially announced by the DTI. According to the firm, the extra time will allow business users to get up to speed, revisit their processes, and identify potential risks and cost-effective means of complying with the impending laws.

Equipment covered under WEEE must be labeled to inform users not to dispose of the product and other waste. The label is a simple representation of a wheeled bin with a line drawn through it, as defined by the CENELEC standard EN 50419:2005 (Fig. 1). A black horizontal bar added to the bin indicates that the product was placed on the EU market after August 13, 2005.

Electronic waste

Consumers have wrestled with disposing their TVs, computers, cell phones, and other electronics for years (Fig. 2). But research sponsored by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates shows that 95% of American consumers don't know the meaning of the term "e-waste." Also, 58% aren't aware of an e-waste recycling program in their community.

"Our research found that while nearly three out of four consumers have used or unwanted technology products in there homes, they aren't sure how to dispose of them," says David Lear, vice president for corporate, social, and environmental responsibility at HP.

Japanese companies have advanced well ahead of the rest of the world in recycling—not only with national laws covering the design and use of electronic products, but also their disposal. Through its Shared Responsibility Program, Sony Electronics promotes U.S. consumer-electronics recycling by reducing the burden placed on consumers and local governments. Sony pays for the recycling of all own-brand products collected through many cooperative recycling events. It also has established collection points.

So far, though, the federal government's response to e-waste disposal is slow. No federal laws cover recycling, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pushed for federal legislation that would specifically, or even broadly, cover electronics. (The EPA estimates that about 50 million computers became obsolete in 2003, but fewer than 6 million were recycled.) The few bills introduced are still tied up at some level of Congress.

One would give an $8/unit tax credit to companies that recycle at least 5000 display screens or computer-system units each year. Another piece of legislation would give manufacturers tax incentives to recycle.

At the state level, California is well ahead of other states with its Electronic Waste Recycling Laws (SB20/SB50). California charges consumers an upfront fee to underwrite an e-waste collection and recycling program. When consumers purchase a TV set or computer monitor, they must pay a fee ranging up to $10. The money goes to the state and is distributed to groups or local governments that collect and recycle the discarded equipment.

Maine's new e-waste law becomes effective in January. But it differs from California's law, as it requires all computers and TVs to be clearly marked with the manufacturer's name. It also says that manufacturers will, at some point, receive a bill for the cost of recycling their products. At least 14 other state legislatures have introduced legislation aimed at controlling electronics recycling or limiting the use of hazardous materials in electronics.

Just a start

All of these regulations are just the beginning of the push to rid the world of toxic and other potentially recyclable materials. The EU requires the removal of six hazardous substances—lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls, and polybrominated diphenyl—but more may be added.

Lead continues to be the design community's biggest concern, according to most Electronic Design readers. More than half (52.6%) of our survey respondents said use of lead in their products would have the biggest impact on the products their company makes, far exceeding the impact of any other RoHS-restricted material.

Paul Dickerson of Matric sees the long-term reliability of lead-free products as one of the biggest issues facing the industry. "Tin has two problems when you don't add lead," he says. "The first is the well-documented formation of tin whiskers. How long will it be before a tin whisker failure kills someone?" According to Dickerson, at least five satellites in orbit no longer function due to tin whiskers. The second problem, he says, is tin's tendency to disintegrate in cold environments.

Another problem will be compliance standards as well as who sets them. How can one document that an assembly shipped to Europe is lead-free?"I can see boatloads of products sitting on docks in Europe next July," says Dickerson.

Cost is another RoHS issue. Nearly half (48.2%) of Electronic Design's survey respondents expect their companies to increase the price of their products to comply with RoHS, while almost a third (29.9%) indicated that they don't expect the cost of their components to increase as a result of RoHS compliance. However, 24.5% anticipate paying 5% or more for RoHScompliant components.

OEMs, which are ultimately responsible for adhering to the EU's RoHS directive, have been the most aggressive in responding to the new rules. They're sending detailed questionnaires to their component suppliers, asking them to identify literally every substance in their products, including chemical compositions.

Several well-known exemptions to the RoHS do exist, though. In fact, that list was recently extended to cover 19 "possible exemptions." These more recent additions further muddy the waters for companies.

TAGS: Components
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