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.
Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine
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.
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.