This is a guest post by Dr. Ronald Lasky, Senior Technologist at Indium Corporation, a company that supplies materials for electronics assembly, including solder pastes, solder preforms, fluxes, Pb-Free solder alloys and more.
The fact that the world is being inundated with electronic waste is hard to escape. Each year more than 1 billion mobile phones and 250 million PCs are sold, hence about that many are scraped. This inundation is why RoHS was developed, to make recycling easier and safer. In this way, RoHS supports the goals of its sister law WEEE. This point tends to be forgotten. Recently, someone wrote a letter to the editor of one of the larger trade journals saying, “I don’t feel any safer because of RoHS.” He shouldn’t, but the man in the photo (to the left) will be. This photo was from a January 2008 National Geographic article about e-waste. The article pointed out that much of our e-waste ends up in poor countries where it is recycled to reclaim some of the materials. Since this man [in the photo] is likely recycling electronics that were made pre-RoHS, odds are that he will eat from the same pan that the tin-lead solder was in.
Other popular media, including PC magazine, US News and World Report, and Time have all reported on this theme that our e-waste is poisoning 3rd world men, women and children while they “recycle” it. Although I’m sure that the EU planned that most recycled electronics would be performed in factories with disciplined processes, 3rd world recycling is here to stay. Hopefully with RoHS compliant products it will be safer for those seeking out a living doing so.
What about RoHS 2? I’m an optimist. I don’t think RoHS 2 will be that bad. Why? Because of the way RoHS was handled. By now, most readers will be thinking, “This guy is nuts!”
Hear me out. Around 2002, we were all saying that RoHS was a disaster, that the EU wouldn’t listen to our concerns, and that RoHS wasn’t needed because disposal of waste electronic equipment didn’t put any of the six hazardous substances (lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and PBB, PBDE) into the environment. (We didn’t think about how RoHS’s main intent is to support recycling.) Reliability of lead-free assembly was also not demonstrated, we also argued. So we all expected that come 1 July 2006 disaster would strike…the electronics industry would come to a standstill.
Hmmm… it didn’t. There was no “headline making” effect on electronics shipments to the EU. Since 1 July 2006 about $500 billion of RoHS compliant electronics have been manufactured, with no “the sky is falling” type of reliability issues. The EU continued to be sensitive to the fact that only short term reliability has been demonstrated by allowing WEEE category 8 (medical devices) and 9 (measuring and control instrumentation) products to continue their RoHS exemption. The EU countries have also worked with companies that have had issues with RoHS compliance, the EU has been measured in their response, avoiding for the most part, making a spectacle of non-compliers.
So we all grumbled and complained, but going on two years later, RoHS appears to be working and the EU is still seeking stakeholder input to fine tune the laws. It cannot be said that they don’t listen, at least to some extent.
I have to admit though that the list of RoHS 2 materials (pdf) (all 46, yikes!) is extensive and has some materials that their elimination would seem to be show stoppers like gallium arsenide. However, if one looks at the list, each material has an input section for “Stakeholder Input.” Let’s hope they listen very very carefully!
Dr. Ronald Lasky is a licensed professional engineer and holds four degrees including a Ph.D. from Cornell University in Materials Science. In 2003, Dr. Lasky won the Surface Mount Technology Association’s Founder’s Award. Also, Dr. Lasky has developed several new concepts in SMT processing software relating to process optimization, line balancing, and cost estimating; he also holds several patent disclosures.