RoHS is a funny little stamp added to information technology starting back in July 2006. RoHS stands for Restriction of Hazardous Substances. What is it? Where is RoHS four years on?
The full title of RoHS is
Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment. Notice it is only certain substances and it is only in electronic equipment.
Certain hazardous substances
Here is the list. There are a whole lot of other hazardous substances used but not banned. Some of the other substances are used during the manufacture but do not appear in the final product and may be banned under workplace safety laws in some countries. Some of the hazardous substances are hazardous in a fire and will kill you (or give you cancer) only when you are trying to find your way out from a burning building.
- hexavalent chromium
- polybrominated biphenyl (PBB)
- polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)
Electrical and Electronic Equipment
This is a weird bit because many of the hazardous substances are much more common in other household goods. Mercury is in those
power saving mini fluorescent light globes you use all over your house to help you feel green. Those fluorescent light globes do not save as much power as claimed on the packet and were really introduced because of a shortage of the tungsten used in the older style incandescent light globes. Fluorescent lights contain mercury. Fluorescent lights are electronic because they need a starter circuit. Fluorescent lights are the biggest source of mercury in the electronic world but are not included in RoHS.
The true power saving replacements for incandescent lights are LED and OLED. OLED is too new to have a large manufacturing base. LED was invented way back but making blue and white LEDs was difficult until relatively recently. LEDs should soon move out of the hands of the let's rip you off under the banner of being green and on supermarket shelves at affordable prices. OLED will follow by several years because most of OLED is still limited by people owning patents. There is no need for mercury in LED or OLED.
Polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) are flame retardants to make common cheap plastics not burst into flames quickly. When you computer overheats, a fuse should cut out before the computer bursts into flames. You should see a puff of gas from the flame retardant but not flames. There are common cheap plastics that are naturally flame resistant and should be used instead of flame retardants.
Cadmium does nothing special and is easily replaced by zinc, nickel, chrome, and other substances. Cadmium is often used to stop water oxidising metal and there are lots of alternatives for that task. When someone says they are dramatically reducing their cadmium usage, they are probably switching to zinc plating or paint because both are cheaper. Computer case manufacturers replace steel with aluminium because aluminium oxidises at a much slower rate and the weight saving decreases shipping costs, a really important consideration when you import everything from China.
Apple and other computer manufacturers replace steel with plastic because plastic is even cheaper to make and lighter to ship plus has the advantage of being really easy to change when clothing fashions change. For a while Apple computers were the same colour as Gap clothing. The annual change forces the fashion victims to buy new equipment each year and that creates massive electronic waste which makes the products far less green than they gain by a slight reduction in a hazardous substance.
Besides, cadmium was phased out due to heath and safety issues during manufacture plus the fact that it is three times the cost of zinc even before spending all that money to protect your staff.
Some European manufacturers had small exemptions from some RoHS requirements until 2008, a fact that was beaten to death by Steve jobs when he wrote about Apple and RoHS in 2007. The exemptions are gone.
Companies at the smaller end of the market, including Apple, sell the same product into every market. When they sell a product that is RoHS, the same RoHS product sells everywhere. When a large manufacturer, say Samsung, makes an equivalent product, they make so many that they can make one RoHS product for Europe and a different product for everywhere else.
How can Samsung be counted as large and Apple small when their top products have similar sales? Samsung actually manufacture products. Apple and similar companies sell stuff manufactured by someone else. Samsung is one of the few companies in the world manufacturing LCD screens. Assembly companies in China buy LCD panels from Samsung and use the panels in computer monitors. The boutique computer companies order the Chinese LCD computer monitors with a specific brand slapped on the front and bingo, the one product is counted three times, once for Apple or whoever, once for the Great Wall Electrical Manufacturing company, and once for Samsung because an LCD screen is little more than an LCD panel in a plastic case.
The manufacturing trail goes everywhere. Almost nobody manufactures the blue lasers used in Blu-ray drives. Philips and Pioneer are among the few companies developing optical drives.The lasers are shipped to a tiny number of optical drive manufacturers. You then have a hundred brands printed on the different boxes. Computer assemblers buy the drives, make the computers, then glue on whatever computer brand is required. The first mass produced notebook computers appeared under about 50 brands but for a while there was just one company in Taiwan making almost every notebook.
Imagine being a big American or European brand buying from dozens of factories in Taiwan, Korea, and China. You cannot use the RoHS stamp until your manufacturers are clean and your manufacturers are mostly only assemblers of things made elsewhere, which means they have to wait on someone else. Plastic cases are easy to change because they are stamped out in the factory next door but an optical drive might contain parts from several companies in Japan, more in Korea, some in Taiwan, then go through several different assembly plants in China as components are built into assemblies then shipped to assemblers for manufacturing into drives.
July 2010 marks four years of RoHS. Will we see any improvements this year? No, it looks like there is no move to add more hazardous substances to the list or to extend RoHS to excluded areas.
For most of the hazardous substances, the computer industry is the smallest user but is the only industry where RoHS is having an impact. There are many other industries that should be subject to RoHS
Your notebook computer is RoHS but the same computer board used in a car or a cash register or a lift or an ATM or an automated shop sign or an air-conditioning system can be exempt. I do not know what happens in every country. In Australia I see a lot of computers inserted into other devices and not RoHS. From what I have heard, if you are in a RoHS compliant country and you import a computer in a case for use in
something else, the computer has to be RoHS, but if you import the
something else fully assembled, the computer does not have to be RoHS.
There are currently more computer processing chips and circuit boards manufactured for the something else's than there are for computers.
The hazardous substances list is incredibly short and there is a lot more to put on the list including residual chemicals from manufacturing. When you open an electronic item, you breath a gust of packaged fumes. you might not be affected in the average house but consider a worker in an electronics shop breathing that stuff all day.There should be tests of residual solvents in the packaging. There should be tests of the fumes given off from plastic continually heated by power supplies and CPUs.
Built in obsolescence
Using Apple as an example in the electronics industry, consider the iPod. Today Apple is really a part of the fashion industry and the Gap styled Macs were the first step. The iPod was the most obvious mass market fashion accessory and Apple deliberately made the iPod so you cannot replace the battery, forcing you to buy a new one every 6 to 12 months. The sheer waste of resources is incredible. Now Apple is offering to smash them into trash under the excuse of
recycling to stop people recycling them as iPods by simply replacing the battery.
Printer sales companies do the same. Epson and Canon are among the few brands that actually manufacture. Most of the rest just buy and label. The non manufacturing brands make more money from the cartridges than the printers and want to keep the cartridge price high. HP sells a $2 cartridge for $72. The cheats do all sorts of things to boost the price including using one cartridge for all colours in inkjets and combined toner/printer cartridges in lasers. Then they give away their cheapest printers almost at cost because they will make $70 profit per cartridge for many years. People started refilling cartridges and now the brands are using
green to make people return the old cartridges for smashing into almost useless plastic then pay $200 for a replacement instead of refilling for $20.
Some of the smashed up plastic is
recycled as rubbish bins and other really low tech plastic items. Brand new hydrocarbons are pumped out of the ground to make shiny new plastic cartridges. The whole recycling business runs rapidly downhill with plastics because there are so many plastics that are jumbled up in waste or cannot be recycled in their original form. Glass, steel, and aluminium recycle cleanly while most plastics do not. If your ipod was made of steel, it could be automatically recycled. Plastic has to be hand sorted with half the plastics thrown into the waste bin for burning or re-manufactured as a lower grade material.
Almost every brand of hand held device, other than Apple, has replaceable batteries and all the popular models have alternative suppliers who make battery replacement so cheap that handhelds stay in use for years. Surly Apple could do it if they were not so greedy. Apple should adopt the Google philosophy point 6 you can make money without doing evil.
Epson and Canon compete in the economy area with printers where you can replace only the colour you use. Epson introduced a control chip trying to stop refilling and provided no way to override the chip, a definite retrograde step.
A new label
We can reduce the pollution from landfill by labelling things according to their ability to be used for many years instead of being dumped every six months. We need a label indicating products that can be recycled as the same material many times instead of going down hill into waste over a couple of recycles. We need a label that says the product can be recycled safely and there will be no hazardous substances substances pumped into our air when the unrecyclable material is burnt or degrades in landfill.
RoHS tells you the product is safe to hold but nothing about the safety of disposal because it assumes disposal is through landfill. Huge amounts of waste are burnt. Part of the
green energy movement pushes us to burn waste so all that junk plastic can be used as fuel. Many plastics convert to carcinogens when heated. Are those plastics banned by RoHS? No. If the burning was perfect, the carcinogens would also burn but tests show that most rubbish burns are not perfect.
Added to that, new plastics and weird dangerous additives appear on the market almost daily. The people who burn the rubbish cannot keep up and end up using massive overkill of heat to burn everything,leading to huge energy waste.
We can avoid some of the problems up front by avoiding some of the plastics. We could also use more cellulose and other plant based materials. If Apple and other brands continue on the use-once-then-throw-away path, they might as well use paper cases on their products. Paper from waste crop cellulose and a little was extracted from plants would produce an iPod case capable of outlasting the battery. The same material would work for printer cartridges with just a little bit of work to match the wax with the ink so the solvents in the ink do not dissolve the wax.
A new label could move is forward in a way that RoHS is clearly not headed.
RoHS should be updated to include a wider range of hazards. RoHS does nothing to aid sustainability or recycling or reduce the fire hazard from a device or reduce the carcinogenic fumes from a burning device. RoHS will reduce the landfill pollution form a small percentage of dumped trash but is trivial compared to our total waste output. RoSH needs to spread out to a wider range of hazards and a wider range of product. We need a separate logo to cover the viability of recycling the goods.