By Mike Spear
Given the almost instant obsolescence of so many of today’s consumer electronics products, it’s not surprising that the concept of product stewardship should be gaining in popularity. It can mean different things to different people and industries, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines it as “a product-centered approach to environmental protection that calls on all those in the product lifecycle—manufacturers, retailers, users and disposers—to share responsibility for reducing the environmental impact of products.”
The electronics industry has, of course, been promoting product reuse for some years in a bid to cut down on the amount of waste requiring disposal. One example is the consortium set up in 1998 by Honeywell, General Electric and White-Rodgers to recycle thermostats. Operating under the name of the Thermostat Recycling Corp., the operation has recovered 4,000 pounds of mercury from nearly 450,000 recycled thermostats.
What has characterized product stewardship initiatives to date has been their voluntary, non-mandated implementation by manufacturers and users alike. Recent developments coming out of Europe, however, will change that approach—not least for equipment manufacturers.
Arguably the biggest impact in terms of products and companies affected will be made by the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) proposals, which were approved this past December, and are scheduled to take effect this coming June. The chemical industry and many of its customers will take the brunt of a piece of legislation that calls for the registering, testing, and, for highly hazardous materials, authorizing of some 30,000 chemicals.
As director of toxicology services for the Toxicology Group, a division of the independent testing and certifying organization, NSF International, Clif McLellan is involved in the day-to-day testing of chemical-containing products from a variety of manufacturers. “I think there’s definitely a growing interst in product stewardship from companies looking to establish that their products are safe from start to finish,” he says. “Sometimes it might be for marketing reasons, but entwined in there is some work being done as a protection against litigation.”
Toxicology Group offers a range of testing programs and services to companies requiring risk or safety assessments of their products. McLellan says NSF is “looking at the pros and cons” of starting a program to certify products under the REACH proposals, as well as considering the impact of two other EU directives of more direct and immediate relevance to the control sector—the so-called WEEE and RoHS directives.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive 2002/96/EC is concerned with reducing the amount of electrical and electronic equipment waste going to landfills or incineration at the end of its useful life. It places the responsibility on producers of such equipment for taking it back, and recycling it where possible. Consumers are expected to be able to return their obsolete equipment to manufacturers free of charge.
Meanwhle, the Restrictions of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) Directive 2002/95/EC has a more immediate impact on product design. Since July 1, 2006, it has banned the manufacture and import into the EU of any electrical or electronic equipment containing the heavy metals lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, and the flame retardants polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).
McClellan says NSF already is involved in certifying that products meet the RoHS directive, and is considering introducing a testing program for WEEE compliance as well. Though the initial impact of both these directives will mostly be on the huge consumer electronics markets, they’re nevertheless targeted at all electrical and electronic equipment, whether consumer or industrial.
The goals of both directives aren’t dissimilar from many of the voluntary U.S. initiatives. Laudable though they are, however, few have the same mandatory force as the EU directives. Whether that will change, either on a state or federal level, remains to be seen, but there are certainly signs of a more coercive approach being taken up around the world. “RoHS-type initiatives are being rolled out in countries like Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea and, from next year, China,” says Aidan Turnbull, head of the global eco-design practice with international consultant Environ.
Turnbull says, “The U.S. is quite a ways behind Europe in terms of WEEE-type legislation. There is Senate Bill 50 in California, for example, which only applies to computers, TVs, monitors, and displays, focusing on a small group of household products. The EU regulations, on the other hand, cover everything listed in their 10 categories, including a huge number of B2B products.”
The problem facing importers to the EU is that each country can have its own interpretation of WEEE. Some allow foreign companies to register under the directive, while others do not. This is fundamentally different from RoHS, which Turnbull says “applies equally across all member states, and no one state can change anything.” WEEE, on the other hand, “is almost like a guideline, with 27 variations [the number of member states] across Europe.”
Environ has attempted to cut through all the uncertainty by setting up a web-based service to help companies comply with both WEEE and RoHS.