Sensors Mag

It's So Political Being Green

April 21, 2006 By: Ed Ramsden

A few weeks ago, Barbara Goode brought to my attention that there were companies switching to RoHS-compliant processes even though their products were covered by the exemption on control and measurement equipment. Although going lead-free when you really don't have to makes a nice statement that you are environmentally conscious, very little is done in the world of commerce out of the goodness of men's hearts. A more reasonable motivation is fear.

There is no guarantee that any given exemption will remain in place forever, so at some point in the near future a noncompliant company may find its products barred from the EU market. This in itself should make any electronics supplier that does business in the EU think twice about compliance issues.

Another characteristic of the EU directives is that they are subject to implementation and enforcement by individual countries within its purview. The UK Department of Trade and Industry published a document to help people comply. While helpful, it falls short of being definitive in such important matters as whether your product falls under the scope of the RoHS directive, and exactly what constitutes "due diligence" on your part in ensuring your products are compliant. One thing the document is very definite about, however, is that there will be significant fines for those offenders who are caught.

A Flat World

Another more significant reason for compliance is that we live in a very flat world. If you're a sensor manufacturer, your products are likely to wind up just about anywhere, and because you typically sell to OEMs who incorporate them into their products, you have no control over their ultimate distribution. Product regulations for nearly any political entity therefore have the effect of a bad chain letter propagating through global supply channels. Your products may be exempt, but your customers' might not be, and those OEMs are going to demand compliance on your part. Because of uncertainties in interpretation and enforcement, many sensible people are just going to go compliant as the path of lowest risk, whether they have an exemption or not. If they buy from you, guess what—you will be going down that path right behind them.

Aside from the EU, other countries and even individual U.S. states such as California are enacting RoHS laws (e.g., SB20, Ch526). Electronic component manufacturers are phasing in more and more RoHS devices, and presumably phasing out those containing lead and other evil substances. In a few years, the entire electronics industry will be nice and green and eco-friendly and we can all sing "Kumbayah" and have a group hug.

What's Wrong with That?

Well, plenty. RoHS legislation is yet another case of laws being made without regard for rational cost–benefit analysis. According to a report put out by IPC, the U.S. electronics industry uses about 4% of all the lead we produce. 3% of the total goes into the glass used to make CRT bottles, and <1% goes into interconnect (solder). 80% goes into batteries, which are exempt under EU RoHS laws. In the U.S., more lead is used in ammunition than in electronics. (Presumably a lot of this lead ends up being sprayed all over the countryside and in firing ranges, which is so much more ecologically preferable to having it disposed of in a landfill.)

Not the Whole Story

Well, consumption doesn't tell the whole story, because some materials are recycled. Specifically, a moderately efficient infrastructure exists for recycling automobile batteries, so of landfill contents examined, about 48% of the lead is from batteries, 36% is from CRT bottles, and only 4% is from consumer electronics—presumably anything electronic without a CRT. So the net effect of banning lead-based solder is a 4% reduction in the total amount of lead disposal? So when all this toxic waste leaches into the groundwater and foodchain it results in a 4% reduction in my personal daily lead intake? This makes me feel much better.

Well, not exactly. Again citing the IPC report, there isn't much evidence that all of this lead is actually going anywhere. If it stays put, then it really isn't a credible environmental threat. Just because something is poisonous it is not automatically a hazard.

Are We Moving on It?

But aren't we improving the environment? Maybe. Slightly. A ban on lead-bearing solder looks like it has marginal environmental benefits, but has imposed significant costs to industry over the past few years and will probably continue to do so. The real reason laws like this get passed is that they look superficially attractive (stamp out evil, toxic lead!), and because the electronics industry is relatively decentralized, these laws have no organized opposition. Unless an industry or political interest group screams, there is no incentive for any politician who values his or her career to oppose any kind of environmental regulation, no matter how ineffectual or how expensive. If RoHS legislation had not exempted batteries, you can bet that the Euroopean automotive industry would have figured out a way to kill it—switching to lead-free car batteries would have had prohibitive costs. Similarly, in the U.S., an environmental proposal to ban lead-bearing ammunition would almost certainly face serious opposition from certain extremely well-funded and vocal special interests.

Deal with It

The EU legislation is in place, and for better or worse has already turned an industry upside down through its global supply chains and we have to deal with it. The real danger at this point is that individual states will start enacting their own ad hoc laws as has California. This poses a significant challenge to the sensor industry in particular, as it largely consists of small to midsized manufacturers who simply will not have the design, legal, and compliance resources to contend with a patchwork of regional regulations. RoHS needs to be enacted at the federal level, and, where practical, preferably harmonized with those of the EU and other political entities.

As much as I believe that the best government is the one that governs least, having one set of laws certainly beats having 50 or more.

On Tuesday I'll talk about products that are made either for instant obsolescence or early failure and their effect on the waste stream.

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