Is time ripe for further RoHS bans in the EU?

Source: ENDS | Published on: Tuesday 12 April 2010
Dave Keating

There are concerns in the European Parliament over a proposal by Green MEP Jill Evans to ban further potentially toxic chemicals including brominated flame retardants as part of a revision of the restriction of hazardous substances (RoHS) directive.

In 2008 the European Commission proposed to review whether further substances should be banned under RoHS. But for Ms Evans, who is leading the parliament’s debate on the revision, this is insufficient. There is no need to further delay the inevitable, alternatives to certain substances still used in electronic products are there, she says.

Shadow rapporteurs for the socialist, liberal and centre-right EPP groups in the parliament’s environment committee had initially said they needed more evidence on the safety and viability of alternatives before they could back Ms Evans’ proposal.
MEPs from the liberal group and the EPP, the largest political group in the parliament, eventually opposed the idea. During a committee debate in Brussels at the end of March, they said the revised law should only define criteria for determining future chemical restrictions. But the Socialists and the Greens backed Ms Evans.

The Phosphorus Inorganic and Nitrogen Flame retardant Association (Pinfa) went to the committee to present information on available alternatives to brominated flame retardants, saying alternatives are already being used and are indeed available. But this did not seem to convince liberal and EPP MEPs.

Most industry organisations ENDS has spoken to oppose the idea of having specific substance bans in the revised law. Digital Europe has said the rationale is political rather than science-based. Not enough impact assessments have been conducted on the effects of further restrictions and possible substitutes, it added.

Both industry groups and the EPP are saying the revised law should contain a science-based methodology for future substance evaluation to be carried out by the commission, based on the REACH regulation. Restrictions would thus be added to an annex to RoHS in the coming years.

Taiwan-based computer manufacturer Acer supports Ms Evans’ proposal to ban further substances as part of the revision, especially brominated flame retardants and PVCs. The firm says setting criteria for future bans would only delay the introduction of greener electronic products on the market.

Acer set a goal of being PVC/BFR-free by 2009 but failed because component suppliers are not phasing them out. An immediate ban would send a strong signal to the market, it says. Without it suppliers will feel no pressure to stop using the substances.

Julian Lageard of chipmaker Intel says the industry is already voluntarily phasing out certain substances. He points to efforts such as the global halogen-free initiative by electronics industry association INEMI as an example of this. Companies such as Nokia have also been praised for eliminating PVC and BFRs from their products.

Mr Lageard adds there are currently no mechanisms in RoHS to ensure that immediate bans are based on scientific evidence. There are also doubts about the viability of certain alternatives. Centre-right MEP Julie Girling says there are 75 possible substitutes for PVCs and BFRs, and they have not been thoroughly evaluated.

A parliament source told ENDS that with such hostility to the idea of further substance bans, Ms Evans’ proposal is unlikely to survive for much longer. Ms Evans is aware that compromises will have to be made, but she is committed to the idea that these substances should be restricted now during the revision.