Lead-free Electronics Led by the EU

It has been a few years since the USEPA ground up a standard personal computer and ran it through their descriptively named Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP): the test designed to determine if a waste will result in hazardous chemicals leaking into the groundwater if disposed in a typical landfill environment. Sure enough, computers would be "hazardous waste" if they were industrial by-products rather than the useful, everyday tools we consumers like to upgrade every two to three years. As is commonly the case, efforts to redesign these critical components of modern life have been struggling against the market forces driving continually cheaper electronic goods and the scientific questions (is it really necessary to target electronics when batteries, bullets and even tire weights far exceed the paltry 0.5% contribution of lead from electronics?) But all this will soon change. Experts from around the globe have been meeting in Barcelona, Spain this week for the "International Conference on Lead Free Electronics".
The unknown heroes of the design revolution have been pondering such technical issues as assembly inspection and tin whiskers. What does it mean? It means that you can turn your computer or mobile phone on and run it through temperature cycles, which have become increasingly challenging as size has decreased and processor speeds have increased, without the fear that the crystal structure of the printed circuit board will change to the point that strands of metal are ejected (hence the name tin whiskers), leading to short circuits in the dense printed wiring of modern circuitry. It means that lead-free is about more than just getting the lead out: new substrates (the board that holds the circuitry), alternative bonding processes, new standards for production methods and quality control are necessary if the consumer is to get the reliability and functionality that is easily taken for granted.

With sales of over $1 trillion per year, electronics is the largest industry sector, beating out even automotive. Estimates of the cost increase for lead-free electronics range between government calculations of 3% and industry counter-charges of 15%. Even if the truth is somewhere in-between, this is a critical issue in an industry with 5-10% profit margins. Since there are not enough Treehuggers willing to shill out a bit extra to drive eco-friendlier products onto this highly competitive market, we can thank the EU legislation known as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) for expediting the pace of green design which was already underway behind the scenes. Quick to ensure their own manufacturers do not fall behind, China is offering incentives for lead-free manufacture and writing their own laws to make the RoHS standard apply to all electronics manufactured in or imported to China on the same timescale as RoHS (1 July 2006). Japan is adopting the principle that the manufacturer must pay for collection and recycling. Although USEPA has been active in leading research under the design-for-environment program and manufacturers in the USA are wisely jumping on board, the discussion of similar regulation in the US remains only at the State level.

RoHS is also forcing manufacturers around the globe to eliminate their use of the flame retardants PBB and PBDE, and the metals mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium. Treehugger wants to give credit to the graphic designers at EMA design automation for the great image at the head of this article. If you are a manufacturer or just want to know more, you can look into their brochure here.