Many Companies Still Playing It Loose In RoHS Compliance

Nov. 14, 2006
Still not in compliance with the European Union's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive? Still confused about the EU's new and emerging environmental laws? According to a number of surveys, you're not alone.

Still not in compliance with the European Union's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive? Still confused about the EU's new and emerging environmental laws?

According to a number of surveys, you're not alone.

Chicago-based distributor Newark InOne found that 30% of the design engineers and component buyers it sampled not too long ago do not believe the EU's RoHS directive will have any real impact on their company over the next 12 months.

"They either don't feel that it affects them in any way, or they don't deal with Europe, or they're dealing with suppliers or customers that are exempt," says Jeff Shafer, Newark InOne's vice president of product marketing. However, Shafter expects that to change. "We think that might go up to 75% to 80%, but that might not happen for another 12 to 18 months."

Arena Solutions, a product life cycle management (PLM) software provider, found that 83% of the respondents to its survey were at severe or high risk of being unable to demonstrate compliance or due diligence with RoHS. Arena also found that 60% were not confident they could track all of the parts and materials in their products.

If Europe doesn't give industry manufacturers a push toward RoHS compliance, China might. China, which already manufactures about 25% of the electronic products imported into the EU, has developed its own RoHS directive. China's Ministry of Information Industry (MII) has pushed through its Management Methods for Controlling Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products Regulation, better known simply as China RoHS, which requires anyone doing business in China will have to comply with China's RoHS laws by March 1, 2007.

China RoHS is the first step in that country's environmental rulemaking process. Future elements are expected to cover industry products in more detail, among other issues. Meanwhile, South Korea also is well on its way to producing and implementing its own national regulations and is expected to adopt RoHS-like legislation that will take effect by mid-2007.

Due Diligence
It all comes down to due diligence. How much due diligence a producer has undertaken to avoid putting non-compliant products on the market will be a key factor in their defense against prosecution. In the U.K., for example, a due diligence defense requires that a manufacturer prove that it took all "reasonable steps" to meet compliance. Reasonable steps has been interpreted to mean having a documented and auditable process that shows steps were taken to verify the information that is collected from a manufacturer's suppliers.

Penalties are an obvious concern. The sense of most close observers is that the first major manufacturer to be fined or hit with some other level of punishment that presumably will set the standard for everyone else found to be not in compliance. So far, other than the EU refusing to accept shipments of some Apple Computer and Palm products, that hasn't happened, at least not under RoHS. (A few retailers in Ireland have been fined under the EU's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which went into effect in 2005.)

Even though RoHS covers six substances, lead is still the big issue for most of the industry. IPC, the Association Connecting Electronics Industries, has released a report that overwhelmingly suggests that OEMs and electronic manufacturing service (EMS) companies view reliability, component acquisition and labeling, and inventory management as the greatest hindrance to lead-free implementation. "Component acquisition and labeling are now, and will continue to be, significant barriers to lead free compliance," says Anthony Hilvers, IPC vice president of industry programs. "Beyond the science that is core to reliability concerns, there is no excuse for some of the labeling and component acquisition complaints we hear in our office on a daily basis."

On the plus side, the EU has recently added new exemptions to RoHS, bringing to 29 the number of RoHS exemptions. According to Raymond Communications, an consultancy and reporting service which tracks RoHS and other environmental activities, says the two new exemptions apply to certain applications of cadmium, lead, and hexavalent chromium. Specifically, the new allowances include:

  • Lead alloys as solder for transducers used in high-powered loudspeakers
  • Lead oxide in plasma display panels and surface conduction electron emitter displays used in structural elements
  • Lead in solders for the soldering to machined through hole discoidal and planar array ceramic multilayer capacitors

In terms of quality, everyone seems to be getting with the program. Shafer of Newark InOne says he hasn't heard of any complaints about the quality of R0HS compliant products. "If you're a supplier and you have a certain percentage of the market, you want to be sure you hold on to it. You don't want to get a black eye right out of the chute. So, I think everyone has done a pretty good job of changing their materials."

On the downside, manufacturers are reporting that electronic parts are becoming obsolete at a quickening pace as more manufacturers switch to RoHS-compliant products. Even manufacturers who initially announced plans to continue to offer leaded devices are rethinking their strategy of maintaining two separate production lines.

Where's The U.S. Response?
So, where does the U.S. stand in developing federal-level RoHS-like environmental legislation? It's a mixed picture, at best. There are a few bills in the hopper in Congress that address e-waste, but it isn't very definitive. This worries a large segment of the industry, especially consumer electronics OEMs, who want to know—need to know—how the U.S. government is going to respond to RoHS, if at all. A recently published study on the state-by-state e-waste patchwork legislation projects $25 million in recurring annual costs or a total of $224 million that will be spent by consumers, state governments and industry in the next eight years if the federal government doesn't come up with a national electronics recycling plan (see related story, "National U.S. Recycling Solution Seen As Critical").

"The study clearly illustrates the need for a national solution to electronics recycling as an alternative to state-by-state mandates," says Parker Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association. "The projected $224 million to be spent through 2012 should be used to recycle hundreds of millions of pounds of electronics, not squandered on state-level non-recycling costs such as policing out-of-state electronics, engaging in dozens of state legislative and study initiatives, complying with multiple and divergent state requirements, and administering duplicative state programs."

Other challenging environmental directives are on the way.

The EU's Energy-Using Products (EuP) and Registration, the End-of-Life Vehicle (ELV), the EU Packaging, and the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) directives will also have a major impact on the global electronics industry. The EuP (Directive 2005/32/EC), scheduled for implementation in August 2007, will require manufacturers to pretty much start their new product designs from scratch in an effort to reduce energy consumption in products throughout their life cycle.

About the Author

Ron Schneiderman

Ron Schneiderman served as the Chief Editor of Wireless Systems Design and Executive Editor of Microwaves & RF. He is also the author of seven books. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to The New York Times,Rolling Stone,and TV Guide.

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