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RoHS: Getting the PBBs and PBDEs Out of PCs
Joel Makower, 2 Oct 05

Toshiba's recent announcement that it had launched the "world's first RoHS compliant PC" made headlines in much of the environmental media. In reality, it's both big news . . . and not.

The big news is that a major shift is taking place in the electronics industry in response to the European Union's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, more formally known as "Directive 2002/95/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 January 2003 on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment."

That mouthful of a regulation requires literally hundreds of thousands of products currently produced and marketed by semiconductor and other electronics manufacturers to restrict the use of six substances -- cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- in their products. Companies not in compliance by July 1, 2006 will not be able to sell into EU countries. (WorldChanging noted the coming of RoHS at the beginning of the year.)

It is, simply put, the most significant transformation in the manufacturing sector since the banning of ozone-depleting substances in the late 1970s, which has led to a gradual shrinking of the hole in the earth's ozone layer.

The genesis of RoHS dates to the late 1990s, when the EU discovered that alarmingly large amounts of hazardous waste were being dumped into landfills. Trends also suggested that the volumes were likely to grow nearly fivefold faster than average municipal waste. This specter of a massive, and growing, source of toxic contamination caused EU countries to clamp down on these hazardous substances.

The business implications for companies couldn't be greater. Even small amounts of the wrong ingredients can have potentially disastrous financial fallout.

For example, there's the saga of Sony. In the fall of 2001, the Netherlands banned the sale of Sony's hot PlayStation consoles because the cadmium in accessory cables exceeded regulatory limits. Sony's lost sales and the costs to rework their product totaled about $150 million and the experience led Sony to carry out a systematic supply-chain and internal management review to prevent similar problems from happening in the future.

And so, Toshiba's recent press release, however laudable, isn't itself big news. It is merely one of a steady stream of such announcements from companies that they -- or at least some of their products -- have complied with RoHS. (So anxious is Toshiba to get the word out that it launched a special Web site on the topic.) Other RoHS-related announcements in recent months have come from Dell, Hitachi, and Panasonic -- plus dozens of lesser-known firms that supply a myriad of parts to these companies.

It's noteworthy that most of these releases originate from their respective companies' European offices and aren't actively disseminated in the United States. But Americans will likely benefit from RoHS despite the lack of similar laws on this side of the pond, since most manufacturers will design their products to a single worldwide standard. However, the benefits of RoHS for everyone will be years in coming, when the newest generation of RoHS-compliant devices reache the end of their useful lives.

That steady stream of press releases will likely turn into a flood by the beginning of next year, as the July deadline looms. And with that flood, the steady stream of toxics into the environment from e-waste should, over time, turn into a trickle.

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