ROHS Update: Electronics industry braces for further regulation

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ROHS Update: Electronics industry braces for further regulation

The EU (European Union) is moving through the process of recasting its ROHS (Restriction Of Hazardous Substances) environmental directive. By the end of this year or early 2011, a ROHS recast will likely carve away exclusions and possibly add new substances to the current list of six banned substances. Many industry observers are even more concerned about ROHS becoming part of Europe’s CE mark, which would require the electronics supply chain to produce greater detail about the contents of their products.

The final vote of the full European Parliament has been put back to October. The postponement comes because the EU’s Environment Committee is meeting with the Council of Ministers to get on the same page in expanding the scope of ROHS. The goal is a smooth vote from the full parliament in October. Though ROHS is a European-centric directive, most of the electronics industry adopts its restrictions to avoid producing different products for different regions.

Expanded scope: Fewer exclusions

So far the Environmental Committee has agreed that ROHS should be expanded in scope to include all electrical and electronic equipment, with a few exceptions such as renewable-energy generation and certain large-scale installations and military equipment. Currently ROHS only bans substances in eight product categories, with two more slated to be added in 2014. Implementation of the October parliament vote will likely begin in 2013 or 2014.

The narrowing of exemptions hasn’t hit the industry as a surprise. The oil and gas market segments are examples of customers starting to require  that electronics used by those industries be ROHS compliant in advance of those segments being officially included in the scope of EU ROHS as enacted today. The medical and monitoring – categories 8 and 9 – products will be included in scope of the adopted EU ROHS recast. The medical and monitoring equipment segments have been converting to ROHS compliance so that’s not a revolutionary change.

At Arrow Electronics Inc in Melville, NY, the components division has been braced for additional ROHS substances with fewer exclusions. “With more end equipment coming into scope, we find more of our customers needing to comply for the first time and, therefore, they’re looking to Arrow for help in terms of information on transitioning to compliant solutions,” said Peter Kong, president of Arrow Electronics Global Components. “With the initial ROHS implementation, we built an internal infrastructure that allows us to support the continued evolution of the regulation as additional substances are added and/or exemptions removed.”

New substances will be banned

The Environment Committee took a pass on adding PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and BFRs (brominated flame retardants) to the original six banned substances. Instead, they asked for further study. The electronics industry, however, is expecting these substances will eventually be added. Given that assumption, an industry coalition voluntarily stopped using PVC and BFRs and it has asked the industry to follow suit in finding alternatives. The group includes Acer, Dell, HP, and Sony Ericsson, as well as the environmental groups ChemSec, Clean-Production Action, and the European Environmental Bureau.

The group has asked the industry to eliminate the use of these substances in consumer electronics from 2015 onward. Many electronics companies have voluntarily moved to eliminate PVC and BFRs from their products. Some industry watchers are skeptical about how thoroughly these companies are restricting BFRs and PVC.

“These companies are acting they way they do because Greenpeace has a gun to their heads,” said Fern Abrams, director of government relations and environmental policy at the Association Connecting Electronics Industries (IPC) in Bannockburn, Ill. “I would suspect this was a business decision – it’s easier to negotiate with ChemSec than against them.”

As for the coalition companies actually eliminating all BFRs and PVC substances, Abrams is doubtful. “The footnotes to their statement on their Web sites look like credit card agreements.”

One of the efforts from the coalition is information on how companies can effectively eliminate the use of BFRs and PVC. “We’ve worked on the educational aspect of this issue,” said Alexandra McPherson, managing partner of Clean Production Action in Spring Brook, NY. “We’ve produced a technical report that shows the feasibility of the transition away from these substances. We did the report for both the policy members in Europe who will decide what’s going to be included in ROHS, and for the electronics supply chain so we could tell them what strategies companies have developed to overcome the challenges and barriers to removing PVC and BFR.”

CE mark requirements will be difficult on small and mid-sized manufacturers

One of the impending restrictions that strikes that greatest terror into the heart of the electronics supply chain is the almost inevitable prospect of ROHS becoming a “CE mark” directive. That would require a significant escalation in reporting of content in electronic products. Presently, companies simply state their products are compliant and it’s up to European monitoring agencies to test the products and prove a company’s claim is false.

“CE mark hasn’t been voted on yet, but the industry now believes it’s certain ROHS will become a CE mark directive. That’s significant,” said Gary Nevison, legislation and environmental affairs

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