Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Federal RoHS - Not the Best Idea

With RoHS gaining a full head of steam in Europe, there have been several commentators wondering if the US is going to come up their own RoHS-like regulations. I think there are a few arguments for and against whether this will happen. Let's play crystal ball for a minute.

First, RoHS is triggering a lot of end of life (EOL) notices for product parts. In 2004, there were 240,000 EOL notices; that went up to 1.6 million is 2005 and 1.88 million in 2006. That means that these parts will no longer be sold in Europe, so the question is what are the manufacturers going to do with them. I don't think its too much of a stretch to say they are going to dump them in countries with no regs - say China, Latin America, and the US - maybe even at a premium. All this stuff will be toxic under RoHS.

At this point the EPA can either let it happen or enact similar legislation; let's say they try get something passed. In fact, according to this article, this has already been tried with the formation of the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI). NEPSI died in 2004 killed by business interests. EPA had a seat at the table but couldn't make it happen.

It is little known that the EPA has never completely eliminated a single substance from use in the US. Probably the strongest case can be made for DDT, but there is a clause for
unlimited use in emergency situations. They also tried with asbestos and failed. History suggests, then, that the EPA has peer status with most businesses interests, and is trumped by other government agencies, particularly the military. So I don't think Federal RoHS will happen, and we will have toxic goods dumped upon us.

Ironically, I actually think this is the best thing! For what will happen is that states and even cities will start passing their own regs to restrict these goods from being sold in their jurisdictions. Manufacturers will then have to comply with hundreds of different laws, instead of just one. And when that happens, most will strive to comply with all of them; no one wants their monitors banned in New York City, or their routers banned in Illinois. This is exactly what is happening with cell phone manufacturers; they are all being made greener just because of RoHS. And this, I think, is the best solution.


Keith R said...

Hi Mark. You raise (as usual!) a some excellent points, good food for thought. The EU adopted the RoHS and WEEE Directives in tandem, and that was not by accident. For the US to adopt a RoHS-like law but not one placing restrictions on WEEE would indeed likely lead to alot of hazardous materials being exported abroad. While RoHS legislation has a slim chance of passing the Congress (but not necessarily being signed by Bush!), I would seriously doubt a WEEE bill would make it that far. In that case, does it make sense to push for national RoHS legislation alone?

Also good point about how the US handles haz subs traditionlly. Getting anything banned is almost impossible and even heavy restrictions takes ages, lots of red tape and is quite costly. There is no reason to think this would change under a US RoHS regime.

The EU and US chemical regimes have always had different approaches that have created frictions between them in fora like the OECD and UN bodies. With the recent adoption of RoHS and REACH in the EU, this is likely become the case even more. Maybe, just maybe, this situation -- as with the different state and local regimes in the US you allude to -- will prompt industry to either push the USG into real international harmonization talks (question is where -- Basel Convention? SACIM? Someplace else?), or industry will adopt the toughest rules voluntarily rather than try swallow the costs of complying with many different regimes.

As the Chinese curse goes, I think we live in interesting times.

Best Regards,

Mark Ontkush said...

Hi Keith,

thanks for posting, you're so right. The distinction between passing 'RoHS-Like' regs and WEEE-Like regs is important, and as you say, they really need to go together.

Also, the history you provide on the chemical regimes is interesting. Perhaps the "better living through chemistry" slogan didn't hit Europe quite as hard as it did the US.