Why Should I Care About RoHS and Lead-Free Initiatives?

What is RoHS?

RoHS stands for Restriction of Hazardous Substances. It is a directive that became European law in 2003 in an attempt to prevent hazardous materials from entering landfill sites. This directive (EU Directive 2002/95/EC) places a restriction on the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical or electronic equipment sold or used in the European Union (EU) after July 1, 2006 with some exemptions. These substances are lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Covered electrical and electronic equipment includes:

  1. large and small household appliances,
  2. information technology and telecommunications equipment,
  3. lighting,
  4. electrical equipment and electronic tools (excluding large-scale stationary industrial tools),
  5. toys, leisure and sports equipment,
  6. monitoring and control instruments, and
  7. automatic dispensers.

Together with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) - which is setting collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods - it is part of a European legislative initiative to solve the problem of huge amounts of toxic e-waste that is entering the environment.

The Cost of Non-Compliance

Producers who place non-compliant products on the EU market risk facing severe penalties that include fines, impounded goods, loss of the right to sell into the 25 EU Member States and related loss of market share, and adverse press and media coverage. Any country that can prove a product does not comply can levy fines against the vendor. There has already been clear evidence that failure to meet the RoHS Directive means lost sales:

  • Palm Inc. recently announced that its extremely popular Treo 650 is no longer being shipped to Europe due to it not meeting RoHS requirements
  • Apple Computer Inc. products including the iSight Web camera, AirPort base station with modem, AirPort base station power-over-Ethernet and antenna, iPod Shuffle external battery pack, and all versions of the eMac all-in-one desktop computer were withdrawn by the company for sale in the European market due to them not being compliant

The impact of RoHS is not limited to the EU; companies that supply components to customers who put products on the EU market must also be prepared to address RoHS or face the possibility of losing customers or even incurring liabilities.

Other Global Electronic Waste Initiatives

In addition to the EU, at least seven non-EU member countries: Canada (Province of Alberta), China, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan and the USA have proposed or have in-effect legislation addressing the disposal of electronic products. Japan, a leading producer of electronic components and printed circuit boards, has instituted Green Procurement Practices (referred to as JPSSI), which are said to be more restrictive than RoHS. The Korea Ministry of Environment restrictions (RoHS/WEEE/ELV) went into force on Jan. 1, 2008, with some key provisions having various grace periods.

Within the United States, California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act imposes a fee on “covered electronic devices” currently being sold within the state. This fee is intended to cover the cost of properly disposing of the products when they become waste. Second, it requires “covered electronic devices” sold in California after January 1, 2007 to meet the same requirements as those found in European Union Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) legislation. Electronic devices containing toxic metals and not complying may not be manufactured, sold, or imported into California after January 1, 2007. The California Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC) has defined a “covered electronic device” as a new or refurbished video display device that has a screen size of more than 4 inches measured diagonally. In the state of Maine, electronic hazardous substance legislation is currently in effect and calls on manufacturers of electronic products and components to reduce and, to the extent feasible, phase out the use of hazardous materials in their products.

Other U.S. states with regulations modeled after the EU RoHS directive that is proposed, pending or in effect include: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The Supply Chain Affect

Non-compliance ramifications may extend deep into the supply chain to companies that supply the components that violate active legislation. In the case of RoHS, "producers" are taking contractual steps, through supply chain management, to conduct due diligence to determine that their products comply with RoHS. These "producers" include manufacturers, sellers of OEM products, and importers and exporters of goods to the EU. Many producers are seeking to demonstrate due diligence by showing that they have identified their component suppliers, obtained information about the materials contained in components/products, carried out selective sampling and analysis, and have requested "declarations" from suppliers regarding the content of the components. Even if you are not a "producer" as defined by RoHS (for example, a U.S.-based company that doesn't supply product to the EU, yet does to a "producer" selling into the EU market), you may find that you are still affected. Your customers that are RoHS producers may require you to demonstrate that the components supplied through you are RoHS compliant even though RoHS may not apply to your direct situation. Companies who are collecting data such as certificates of compliance and materials declarations from suppliers to show they are compliant with RoHS will be able to use much of that information for new environmental laws being passed by other countries.

Even traditional designs not intended for use in markets were legislation is in place are being affected. As component manufacturers create lead-free versions of their offerings, many choose to discontinue production of their leaded version of the same component. In some cases, component manufacturers have even decided that it is not viable to manufacture lead-free versions and as a result, whole classes of components have gone obsolete. These component issues, in turn, can force a choice to be made by the engineers / circuit board manufacturer regarding the part the components are used in:

  1. redesign the part to a totally lead-free design (to accommodate obsolescence issues and the fact that different solders are required for lead-free and leaded components)
  2. perform a last-time bulk buy from the component manufacturer to support the lifecycle of the part's design
  3. seek aftermarket channels for the now obsolete leaded components

The post RoHS environment has not been a picnic for electronics manufacturers who have been working diligently to eliminate these environmentally unfriendly materials from nearly all new products developed for the EU market, while also adapting manufacturing processes to a lead-free environment. This has involved everything from finding component databases of qualified green components to undertaking due diligence to prove compliance and developing processes that allow for the higher-temperature requirements of lead-free manufacturing. The environment has also required circuit board manufacturers to operate both leaded and non-leaded lines since solders, temperatures, and processes are different. Since no standardized labeling system exists to identify leaded and no lead components to date, they have also been required to maintain unique part identification systems to keep part inventories from mixing.

Why All This Fuss?

In short, the answer is to help protect our environment for future generations. As our technology advancements increase and product costs come down, it becomes much easier to be a disposable society. Why fix something that is broken when you can get an improved one for less than the cost of the repair? Unfortunately, Mother Nature often bares the brunt of this approach in the landfills. The EU RoHS Directive, and other legislative derivatives of it in process, are based on toxicological evidence of harm caused by the six banned substances - one only needs to look to lead being banned from gasoline by the EPA over 20 years ago and from paint for consumer use by the CPSC in 1978. We can expect the debate over the pro and cons of eliminating lead from solder to continue for some time. Regardless of the final outcome and headaches along the way, Mother Nature stands to gain.