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EU to review its RoHS directive

Posted: 17 Oct 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:RoHS  industry review  supply chain 

The European Union (EU) is reviewing its Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive and is expected to recommend tweaks that would make RoHS clearer, simpler and perhaps a bit broader. Companies selling electronics products into EU markets should be aware of the possible modifications on the table.

The European Commission (EC) intends to review all 28 exemptions to see if they're still needed, said Chris Robertson, head of reliability and failure analysis at U.K.-based ERA Technology Ltd. "If you rely on existing exemptions, you may need to consider whether to present your case again," he said.

Watching research connected to current exemptions is also a good idea. For example, a company relying on the Pb-in-servers exemption should be wary if competitors start bringing out RoHS-compliant designs.

"That indicates you wouldn't be in a good position," Robertson said. "It's difficult for the EU Commission to justify an exemption if it's only needed by a handful of manufacturers."

The exemption process itself will also be under review. Today, an exemption request can take one to two years before a decision is made, said Ken Stanvick, senior VP of Design Chain Associates (DCA) LLC. So companies have asked for an easy and transparent application process and a specified time window for ruling on exemption requests.

Expanded coverage
The EC is also looking at restricting more substances under RoHS, though it hasn't said which ones. But industry sources expect flame-retardants DBDE, HBCDD and TBBPA, as well as arsenic, to be in the regulatory spotlight.

If the commission selects new substances, it will then decide on the best restriction mechanism. And that could be RoHS or other legislation, such as the chemical ordinance Reach, according to Robertson.

In addition, Norway is expected to decide in December whether to adopt legislation restricting 18 substances, including arsenic, a move that would potentially affect GaAs ICs used in mobile phones. Norway, which is not an EU member, has recommended to the EC that the country's own restrictions be considered in the RoHS review.

Denmark supports the inclusion of more substances under RoHS. But Torben Norlem, head of RoHS enforcement at Denmark's Environmental Protection Agency, declined to name them.

"The key point is there's now a certain momentum in industry to phase out problematic substances, and we should encourage that momentum," he said.

EU authorities are also expected to act on the main request from industry—to improve the clarity and harmonisation of RoHS across Europe.

Member states interpret the directive in different ways, creating difficulties for companies that seek to comply. Reviewers are expected to look at problematic wording such as the definition of "large-scale industrial tools," which are exempt from RoHS. Member states don't agree, however, on what those tools are. Another troublesome phrase has been "put on the market," which establishes who is responsible for product compliance but means different things to different authorities.

Category confusion
States are also subjectively interpreting what constitutes equipment for military use and what is a "fixed installation." Both are excluded from RoHS.

For example, DCA's Stanvick noted, that different states have differing opinions on whether bomb detectors are military product. There's also disagreement on what is a "finished product," which would fall into a product category subject to RoHS. Semiconductor evaluation boards for microprocessors are in the gray zone, Stanvick said.

"Unless you want to take it to the European Court of Justice, there's no real practical way of resolving that," he said.

Overall, industry sources are asking the commission to better define which products are in and out of RoHS' scope.

In comments to the review authorities, Orgalime, a European industry federation based in Brussels that represents some 130,000 electronics- and mechanical-engineering companies, cited as one example a RoHS exemption for radios designed to be built into cars. In the Netherlands, however, only car radios and navigation systems built in during a car's production are exempt.

DCA, representing manufacturing clients, asked the commission for product scope clarification.

Scope clarification is equally important for enforcement, said ERA's Robertson. Currently, enforcement varies by state, largely because authorities don't agree on what falls under RoHS and what doesn't. "You can't tell, from the terse wording [of the original directive], what all these product categories are exactly expected to mean," he said.

The RoHS review will also include a key decision on whether to include medical devices and monitoring and control instruments (Categories 8 and 9) under the directive. The commission has not said anything about the two categories, but sources generally believe they will be included.

Leaded parts shortage
Meanwhile, as the supply chain moves toward Pb-free parts, industries out of RoHS' scope are finding it increasingly difficult to source leaded parts.

"The commission is under pressure to include 8 and 9," Robertson said. "The big question is what exemptions they will allow."

Beyond Categories 8 and 9, still more product groups are expected to be scrutinised for inclusion in RoHS, said Norlem of Denmark's EPA. He wouldn't give details, but mentioned "professional equipment and other types of consumer equipment."

"A great number of new products didn't exist in 2000, when RoHS was first proposed," Norlem said.

The regulatory framework has also changed since RoHS was established. The directive needs to be examined in the context of more recent green legislation that overlaps or diminishes RoHS, said Adrian Harris, secretary general of Orgalime. For example, the Energy-using Products (EuP) directive, launched in August, creates regulations based on the environmental impact of the entire life cycle of a product.

"That's a much more comprehensive approach than singling out six raw materials," Harris said.

The EC is said to have received about 50 responses from various organisations in response to its call for industry comment. Those 50 responses potentially represent thousands of companies.

The deadline for further feedback is Nov. 29. In February 2008, preliminary results of the review are expected. A proposal is expected to be completed at an unspecified date in 2008.

- Drew Wilson
EE Times

- Drew Wilson is an EE Times Europe contributing editor.

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