Lawmakers seal deal on toxic substances in electronic goods

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An updated EU law on restricting the use of toxic chemicals in electronic devices leaves little room for exemptions and lists a number of new substances for further scientific scrutiny in view of extending a black list of banned substances.

The European Parliament's environment committee yesterday (24 November) adopted a compromise deal on updating existing legislation on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electronic and electrical equipment.

The first-reading agreement was adopted with 640 votes in favour, three against and 12 abstentions.

The amended directive has a global impact, since it applies also to goods imported from third countries and not just to those produced in the EU. 

It will also influence how electronic waste is dealt with abroad, as most of it is currently shipped illegally in developing countries and processed there, often in sub-standard conditions.

Open scope

The Parliament voted to widen the scope of the directive from a specific list of items to all electrical and electronic appliances – unless specifically excluded. The idea is to achieve greater legal clarity on what is covered by the law.

Phones, fridges, TVs and most other common household items are already covered by existing legislation. But extending the directive's scope will mean some products – such as talking teddy bears and laboratory equipment – will need to conform for the first time.

The open scope will come into force after an eight-year transition period.

Photovoltaic solar panels, fixed industrial machinery and military material are among equipment that will remain outside the rules.

Extended blacklist?

While the updated legislation will not immediately add new substances to the current blacklist, the European Commission will conduct a review of the list three years after the legislation has been published.

The current blacklist includes lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE).

The House called for further evaluation of a number of substances that are not currently restricted, including three phtalates (a plastic softener) and one brominated flame retardant. Lawmakers also ensured that nanomaterials are cited as due for further scientific scrutiny.

Specific uses of blacklisted substances may be permitted if this is in the general interest of health and consumer safety and if there are no reliable alternatives. Any such exemptions will, however, be time-limited and subject to a stricter reapplication process.

E-waste

Meanwhile, discussion continues between the Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers to update parallel rules on managing Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

A Parliament plenary vote on the dossier is scheduled for February 2011.

UK MEP Jill Evans (Greens/European Free Alliance), who steered the legislation through Parliament, said that "the revised rules adopted today will help make electronic goods safer, and reduce the release of hazardous substances into the environment. While we clearly would have preferred even stronger legislation, with explicit restrictions on new substances, the final compromise represents a clear improvement on the current situation".

The Parliament's Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) welcomed the final deal, "despite the fact that the inclusion of a list of brominated flame retardants, phthalates and more than 30 other harmful substances under the scope of the directive was not achieved, and that a tight time schedule on Council and member states in reviewing temporary existing exemptions was not imposed".

The European Commission welcomed the deal, which it said "will strengthen the existing law by streamlining procedures for future substance restrictions and by making it coherent with other chemicals legislation".

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik stressed the need to ensure that hazardous chemicals have "as little impact on the environment and human health as possible – both when we use them and when we throw them away". In the medium to long term the new rules "will eliminate the presence of banned substances in these products and in the waste derived from them," he said.

The European Committee of Manufacturers of Domestic Equipment (CECED) believes the revision "will strengthen clarity and predictability for all actors present on the market". However, it says it still finds unclear how the methodology for evaluating future substance restrictions will actually work in practice.

CECED is worried that the new directive may lead to the creation of double standards and uncertainty in the whole supply chain for EEE products as the directive "will not be fully aligned" with the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation.

Orgalime, the European Engineering Industries Association, said that despite a number of positive changes to the original draft proposal on the recast of the directive, the final text "does not resolve the very issue of legal uncertainty which the recast was meant to bring – on the contrary".

The association stressed that no impact assessment had been carried out on the proposed automatic extension of the scope of the directive to all EEE, including associated parts, in eight years' time.

Orgalime Director-General Adrian Harris said "this is the first time that our industry has been faced with 'sunrise legislation'. Automatically multiplying the scope of legislation and proposing to deal with capital goods in much the same way as consumer goods unless the institutions decide otherwise is hardly something which we would see as Smart Regulation". 

First Solar, a leading producer of thin-film photovoltaic modules, welcomed the deal for its "continued exclusion of photovoltaic solar panels from the scope of the RoHS Directive".

It also drew attention to the directive's recital, which "clearly states that renewable energy technologies like PV do not belong into the RoHS Directive". 

"RoHS is intended for household electrical and electronic goods that risk entering an uncontrolled waste stream," while photovoltaic systems are permanently installed and then de-installed at end-of-life by professionals on roofs or on the ground as part of an energy-generating system, the company stressed.

Electrical and electronic equipment constitutes one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU. It is estimated that the rate of growth of this type of waste is three times that of the rate of growth of municipal waste.

Furthermore, such equipment contains a substantial amount of toxic products, some of which can pose health or environmental risks during the life of a device or when devices are dumped or processed as waste (e.g. toxic chemicals leaking into the soil when PCs are dumped in landfills).

In December 2008, the European Commission tabled proposals to recast the WEEE and RoHS Directives.

  • 2010/Early 2011: Text to be formally adopted by EU Council of Ministers. New directive will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union. Member states will then have 18 months to transpose it into national law.
  • Mid-2012: New RoHS Directive to enter into force.

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