Green Electronics First in Europe, Now in China. Where is the USA?

The EU got the lead out first, publishing a law called RoHS for Restriction of Hazardous Substances. Now China is following in the EU's footsteps (or playing tit-for-tat in a game of global market positioning). What can Chinese consumers expect under China's new law and how will it impact the global market? And when will the USA begin to exercise leadership in the greening of global technology?

The Chinese law, rather mundanely called "Measures for Administration of the Pollution Control of Electronic Information Products" but widely referred to as "Chinese RoHS" will target the same six hazardous substances which are regulated by the EU law, namely the heavy metals cadmium, lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium as well as two flame retardants, PBB and PBDE. The main means of control will be a mark which must be affixed by suppliers to the device sold, or clearly printed in papers accompanying the supplied goods if marking is not possible. The green e with two arrows chasing each other in a circle is the mark of equipment which is free of the targeted substances. The orange symbol exemplifies the marking of the product's "environmentally friendly use period". The number in the middle of the circle tells the consumer how long the product can be safely used, without risk to their health or the environment due to the hazardous materials contained in the product. Here is an interesting survey question for the marketing department: Will putting a definite lifespan indicator on electronics lead to people keeping the devices longer? If so, the Chinese law will have an even more beneficial impact on controlling pollution in electronic products.

The marking is required already in March of 2007, but a date for the ban on the hazardous substances is not yet clear. Regulations implementing this aspect of the new law are expected soon. However, when it does hit the books, the Chinese law may have a broader reach. Based on a preliminary list, the definition of "electronic information product" appears to be much more inclusive than that used in the EU. For example, the EU only regulates it if you have to plug it in, while the Chinese draft list of electronic information products includes materials used in the manufacturing process to produce electrical equipment as well.

Look for lots of claims for greener electronics at the CES in Las Vegas this week. But don't be sucked in by the greenwash: these guys are doing it because the have to. China is the world leader in manufacturing electronics. In order not to lose that honor, the Chinese law has left the door open for manufacturers based in China to continue to produce products containing the hazardous substances: as long as they are for export-only. However, it raises manufacturing costs to produce and segregate models for different markets and China is a growing market which no supplier dares to ignore. This TreeHugger predicts that the EU and Chinese laws will drive all manufacturers around the world to go green. If and when the US EPA chooses to join the party, will it be an empty gesture by a hanger-on rather than the bold and ingenuous leadership of the nation which put man on the moon?

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