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issue: October 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Misdirected Directives—Part 2

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By Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

As with the WEEE Directive, RoHS has left the industry with more questions than answers. Here’s a question: when will the European Commission (EC) realize that undefined directives are about as useless as no directive at all?

Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

Because RoHS was developed to complement WEEE, it is easy to assume that problems with one will certainly affect the other. And to an extent, that is true. Lack of clarity within WEEE will only lead to lack of clarity within RoHS. But RoHS has it’s own set of problems.

The technical details surrounding the RoHS Directive are excruciating, so I will only highlight the basic issues. Directive 2002/95/EC on the Restrictions on the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment endeavors to substantially reduce the amount of hazardous substances used in electrical and electronic devices, specifically lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). According to the Directive, products covered under RoHS are the same as those covered under WEEE, except medical devices and monitoring and control instruments. This includes everything from small and large appliances to consumer electronics and power tools.

The largest issue at hand is that there has been no concentration limits set for determining whether or not such products comply. Yes, you read correctly—there is currently no criteria for determining whether or not products comply with the Directive. Hmmm. So you pass an environmental directive in February 2003—more than 18 months ago—before determining what limits of these substances are “environmentally friendly”? I don’t get it. From an environment standpoint, how can you say this will help the environment without researching or determining how much is “too much.” And from a legal standpoint, how in the world can you determine compliance?

In November 2003, the EC did propose a legal definition for maximum concentration values of the six substances. In fact, it looked like everyone agreed on the proposed limits, and industry eagerly awaited them to be “passed” at a July 2004 meeting of the Technical Adaptation Committee (TAC). To everyone’s dismay, they weren’t adopted. (Are you surprised?) Instead, they were passed on to a higher level—the European Environment Ministers—to determine whether or not the proposed limits should be adopted.

Why didn’t they pass? In the opinion of Michelle O’Neill, director of Government Relations at Honeywell (Brussels, Belgium), it was because the meeting included representatives from the 10 new member states that joined the EU in May “who knew very little about this issue and didn’t feel very comfortable voting on something so technical.” However, she adds, that is just an assumption. “We don’t know who voted for what or what positions countries took because the minutes are not published, and they are not shared with us, which is extremely nontransparent, and something that industry really has a problem with,” Ms. O’Neill tells APPLIANCE.

The only hopeful news is that the limit topic is expected to be reviewed again in an EU Environmental Council meeting scheduled for this month—almost a year after the proposed amendment was originally written.

In the event that the concentration levels are decided upon and are legally added to the Directive, there is still an even greater issue that needs to be tackled: to what do the limits apply and what exactly will authorities test to confirm compliance? Are we talking about housings, components, materials? The EC’s proposed concentration limit document uses the term “homogenous material,” which is defined as “a unit that can not be mechanically disjointed in single materials.” That helps. What in the world is a “unit”?

Ms. O’Neill says that although there is not official documentation clarifying how the EC defines a “unit” (shocking!), there have been indications that the EC wants to define homogenous material at “almost the atomic level.” In other words, at the material level as opposed to the component level, which, she says, “would not be workable.”

CECED, as well other industry associations such as AeA Europe and Orgalime, are suggesting that first of all, the term be defined so companies know what they should be testing for compliance. (Good idea!) Secondly, they are suggesting that the term “unit” be defined as “the smallest part of an electrical or electronic equipment that can be separated from the equipment by using ordinary tools, without destroying the function of the part when it is removed.” This would include components like resistors, capacitors, screws, cable insulation, etc. They are also asking that the term “mechanically disjointed” be defined as “dismantling the unit by simple processes (such as screwing, disconnecting, and/or desoldering) using ordinary tools (i.e., not applying chemicals, cutting, grinding, and/or polishing) without destroying the function of the unit.”

Believe it or not, there are even more issues when it comes to exemptions. Companies like Honeywell feel that there is ambiguity within the exempted products (i.e., monitoring and control instruments) that may end up being interpreted differently in national laws. There is also the ongoing “technical review” of certain applications of lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium and whether or not they should be exempt. The EC did allow companies to submit their arguments for exemptions, which are currently being reviewed by a hired consultant. Conclusions of the review are also expected to be presented this month, although no one is holding their breath.

As sarcastic as I may sound, I can assure you that industry—both in Europe and worldwide—are very serious about both WEEE and RoHS. Frustration, at this point, is an understatement. “The problem with RoHS is that the TAC they set up has been moving incredibly slowly, so the lack of progress has been really, really disappointing,” says Ms. O’Neill. In fact, not one item within RoHS has been legally altered or defined since it was put into practice.

Furthermore, industry is trying their best to offer their suggestions, but continue to get the cold shoulder from the EC. “We would like to help the member states and the Commission on the technical issues with our technical expertise, but it’s difficult to do that when we actually don’t see the documents they’re working from,” says Ms. O’Neill. “Additionally, for many member state environment ministries, RoHS is not a priority.”

Last month, the industry went as far as to send a letter signed by approximately 20 CEOs from companies around the world to the European Union, the Environment Ministers, heads of government, and the EC to “impress upon them the urgency to address a number of key issues of WEEE and RoHS,” says Ms. O’Neill.

Will the letter help, or will it be another wasted effort by industry?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I hope you’re patient.

Email us at:editors_mail@appliance.com

PLEASE NOTE : Any correspondence submitted to editors_mail@appliance.com may be published, in full or in part, on our web site or in our printed publications. If you would like to send us email that is NOT intended for publication, please send to: editor@appliance.com.


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