The long and thorny way to greener electronics - chemicals management for the electronics industry remains a challenge

On 2019-03-28, ChemicalWatch organized a conference on chemicals management in the electronics industry in Brussels. Karolina Zazvorkova from the European Commission explained how the growing amount of electronic waste and related environmental pollution lead to regulatory action in Europe. The resulting directives on waste separation, treatment and recycling treatment (WEEE) and restriction of hazardous substances in electronics (RoHS) have been in place since the early 2000s in Europe and many other countries have followed with similar legislation. After a “recast” in 2011, currently activities are ongoing about potentially restricting additional substances. So far, the heavy metals Cadmium, Lead, Chromium (VI), Mercury and the flame retardant groups of polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) as well as four phthalates are restricted (the phthalates starting from mid 2019). For potential additional flame retardants, there have been substance reviews and consultations by the Oeko-Institute in Germany on antimony trioxide (ATO), medium chain chlorinated paraffins (MCCP) and tetrabromo bisphenol-A (TBBPA). A conclusion is expected by the end of 2019, whilst a general review of RoHS will take place in 2021.

The current draft of the EcoDesign directive for electronic displays contains a restriction on brominated flame retardants as a broad substance group – a concept so far rarely used in European legislation. While industry groups oppose this approach because it sets a precedent for regulating chemicals in another legislative area beyond REACH, some equipment manufacturers are not against the rule as such, because they have substituted these flame retardants already.

Aidan Turnbull from BOMcheck pointed out that controlling and enforcing even existing substance restrictions is a challenging task for the authorities. If manufacturers have no good transparency of their supply chain, the risk is high that forbidden chemicals are used or show up as impurities. This can lead not only to economic loss but also reputational damage. In Europe, electronics have to comply with restrictions under REACH, RoHS and the persistent organic pollutants (POPs, EU 850/2004, last amended 2016) regulation. For example, in 2016 testing in 7 countries across the EU found 24% of ~150 universal serial bus (USB) cables non-compliant to RoHS (lead, cadmium), 37% contained RoHS-2 phthalates. Full material declaration is of course the best way to make transparent which chemicals are used in an article, a point that Blandine Gayral from MedTech Europe stressed and her organisation endorses.

International standardisation helps in coping with the growing list of chemicals of concern or with legal restrictions. Christophe Garnier from Schneider Electric and also chairman of IEC TC 111 (International Electrotechnical Commission, Technical Committee 111 Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems) explained the standard ICE 62474 for substance declarations, which allows all players along the value chain to use a coherent system for communicating which chemicals are used in products. The related database is freely available on the internet.

Not only hard legal restrictions can drive change and the move away from legacy chemicals, but also voluntary measures and incentives like ecolabels which promote better alternatives. Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, from the Green Electronics Council, US, explained the EPEAT system ((Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), which has become a widely used ecolabel for information technology over the past decade, not only in the United States. The EPEAT product criteria are developed as standards in a voluntary and consensus based approach involving a wide range of stakeholders. The latest EPEAT standards for computers and displays address the issue of chemicals of concern by placing restrictions on bromine and chlorine in plastics (rewarding the use of halogen free flame retardants), safer chemical assessment and use, full substance inventory in products and restriction or elimination of substances of concern (EU RoHS, EU REACH, beryllium). In addition, EPEAT also asks for enhanced transparency of the suppliers’ manufacturing facilities and supply chains. Meanwhile, the image of recycled plastics has improved, and brand owners want to use recyclates also for publicity reasons.

“The end of plastics in electronics” was the provocative title of a joint presentation from Mike Kirschner, Design Chain Associates, and Lauren Heine, Northwest Green Chemistry, USA. The background of the title is the question whether critical chemicals can become a serious business risk for thermoplastics in electronics. As an example of regrettable substitution in electronics they cited the replacement of decabromo diphenylether (Deca-BDE) by the chemically very similar decabromo diphenylethane (DBDPE). The latter was introduced as a non-regulated alternative to Deca-BDE and has already found widespread use in electronics, although it brings up many of the concerns that were the reason to restrict DecaBDE. Therefore, it is not a great surprise that DBDPE is proposed for restriction in Canada. Lauren pointed out that there are several good resources for finding safer alternatives, like the pinfa product selector (non-halogenated phosphorus, inorganic and nitrogen flame retardants association), TCO certified accepted substances list, the Chemsec MarketPlace and MaterialWise, a repository of hazard assessments of chemical alternatives, verified by external experts. Currently, also phosphorus based flame retardants face some scrutiny and have to demonstrate their environmental and health profile, in particular the flame retardants for styrenics based enclosures (e.g. PC-ABS = polycarbonate – acrylnitrile-butadiene-styrene polymer). It is also important to state that the electronics safety standards do not prescribe the use of flame retarded plastics, but rather set flammability limits on certain critical parts. These performance requirements can often be met by using non-flammable materials like metal, by increasing safety distances or creating internal enclosures. All these approaches are commonly being evaluated and often followed by electronics manufacturers, because they look for the most economic way to meet safety criteria. The key conclusion is that electronics manufacturers need to know what is in their products.

Kerstin Kuchta from the Technical University of Hamburg described the difficulties in recycling e-waste: it starts with the collection and separation of items (with valuable items like mobile phones or parts like cables even being stolen in the collection process), but the main challenge is the economics. The value drivers for recycling activities are the content of copper and gold, whereas the ferrous and other non-ferrous metals including critical raw materials like indium, germanium and cobalt do not yield a high enough return for the recycler. The plastics content is mostly treated like a waste stream of little value. The separation of different plastics from mixed e-waste is technically still very difficult and economically not rewarding. New and faster sorting technologies together with chemical recycling approaches where the plastic is turned back into its monomers must improve this in the future.

If you want to learn more about “Design for Fire Safety in Greener Electronics” please consider attending this pinfa workshop on April 30 and May 1, 2019 in San Jose, California, USA. Here you find the technical program and general information.

The article was originally posted by Adrian Beard on LinkedIn here.

Pictures: Shutterstock