I was speaking to a group in Boston last month and made the point that manufacturers’ restricted/declarable substances lists (or RDSLs, like those from IBM, Sony, HP, American Apparel & Footwear Association, etc.) are really just stop-gap measures. What we really desire is the opposite: an ASL: Approved Substances List. Examples exist, like cleangredients.org, which is focused on chemical-based cleaning products, and the U.S. EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients List, which is broader and focused on chemical functionality (so it is also applicable to process chemicals in general). Both are still relatively narrow in their scope.
The group I was speaking with was comprised of large electronics manufacturers. One of the attendees asked me, somewhat incredulously, just what I meant by “stop-gap” in light of just how difficult it would be to define any and all “acceptable” substances for use in electronic products, which tend to contain thousands of different substances in a wide variety of different applications.
Ultimately, the answer is that an “ASL” is the wrong goal.
The problem with an RDSL, particularly one based on regulatory requirements, is that it only describes what the suppliers and designers cannot use (or must tell you about if they do use). It doesn’t control what they replace it with. The history of restriction-based chemical regulation (and even well-intentioned substance replacement) is strewn with the wreckage of regrettable substitutions:
- The restriction of lead in gasoline, which was an airborne carcinogen, led to the use of MTBE, which finds its way into ground water and drinking water supplies and makes them unsuitable for human consumption. MTBE was replaced by ethanol, derived from corn, which has a wide variety of environmental and social impacts.
- The replacement of asbestos by copper in automobile brake pads replaced a carcinogen with an aquatic toxin that is being washed into rivers and bodies of water where it kills (desirable) bacteria. Copper will be replaced by something else over the next few years, as California and Washington implement regulatory requirements.
- The replacement of lead in solder with a mixture of tin, silver and copper cost the electronics industry tens of billions of dollars, but resulted in negligible overall improvement in environmental performance.
An ASL, on the other hand, which would describe the substances a manufacturer can use, is far too limiting. Lead, for instance, is used in myriad applications in electronic products. In some cases it’s the best substance for the job; in others it’s not. To set the goal of creating an ASL for the entire industry would be meaningless, as it would not only be unachievable but it would also limit, and possibly eliminate, the possibility of breakthrough technologies.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Knowing the process for fishing is more valuable than being given the fish. And in the same way, the better approach for manufacturers is to define guidelines and standards for suppliers to use to optimize the selection of substances used in their products in a defensible manner rather than simply telling them what substances are acceptable for use. We already have rules and guidelines – mostly internal or set by the market – for selection and use of substances based on functionality, cost, availability, and so on. We just need to add rules for selection and use of substances based on toxicity and, perhaps, social impact. This is where “alternatives assessment” comes in and why it actually may have a future.
Today there are several alternatives assessment (AA) processes that are defined, with more on the way. For instance, the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (IC2) developed an AA guide, while the National Academy of Science recently published a broad “Framework to Guide Selection of Chemical Alternatives” and standards body ASTM is developing another guide.
A read through all these guides will result in one common conclusion: this is incredibly complex and finding people with all the knowledge, and databases with all the information necessary, to do the job is extraordinarily difficult today. So consider this a long-term goal. Today, while still implementing simple restriction-based regulations, more and more governments are driving toward the use of AAs (in particular California, Washington and the European Union) to comply with their requirements, thereby ensuring more control of replacements and limiting the potential for “regrettable substitutions”. Forward-thinking manufacturers are starting to incorporate this concept into their everyday product lifecycle procedures to avoid the regulatory trap altogether.
China RoHS Update
Once again we have activity on the China RoHS regulation. "Management Methods for the Restriction of the Use of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Products ( Draft for Comments)" was released on May 18, with a comment period open through June 17. Tad Ferris of Foley & Lardner has produced a translation as well.
Tad also wrote a good analysis of the differences between the current and proposed law here, and translated the revision of the labeling standard issued last year, SJ/T 11364-2014 (but which MIIT put on hold at the beginning of the year, when it was intended to come into force. This will now occur when the new version of China RoHS comes into force).
More EU RoHS Update
Following-up on my previous article updating you on EU RoHS, our favorite Directive continue to evolve:
- Quintech, which submitted the exemption renewal application for exemption 7(b), withdrew it. Now that there are no exemption renewal applications for exemption 7(b) it will expire on 21 July 2016.
- Oko Institut opened a new stakeholder consultation on April 24, closing June 19, which covers three exemption renewal applications and three new exemption requests. That leaves only 83 more renewal applications to go.