*NEWS*EUROPE PUSHES TECH INTO DETOX

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*NEWS*EUROPE PUSHES TECH INTO DETOX

 user 2006-04-24 at 10:02:00 am Views: 46
  • #15043

    Europe Pushes Tech Into Detox
    The
    EU is banning six hazardous substances in electronics, aiding the
    ecology but requiring challenging adjustments by firms everywhere.
    Gerald Barker is in the business of making people feel better – not harming them.
    His
    company, Coherent Inc., makes sophisticated machines that produce
    high-performance lasers. The light beams are used to perform glaucoma
    surgery and to produce stents that are implanted in arteries to ward
    off heart attacks, among other applications.But some of the 50,000
    materials used to manufacture its products contained minute amounts of
    six hazardous substances, such as lead and mercury. So for two years,
    Barker has been eliminating the harmful components. He has replaced the
    lead solder in the circuit boards, jettisoned offending plastic
    insulation and even found less toxic paint for the company logo.The
    Santa Clara, Calif.-based company wants to ensure that it can keep
    exporting its high-end laser technology to European Union nations after
    July 1, when governments begin barring the sale of electronic products
    containing more than traces of the six banned substances. The pending
    regulations affect everything from computers and cellphones to
    automated teller machines and toy trains.Coherent, whose annual sales
    total more than $500 million, has spent millions of dollars working
    with its suppliers to identify the substances, locate environmentally
    friendly substitutes and redesign and test its modified products.
    Barker,
    Coherent’s vice president of environmental initiatives, isn’t convinced
    that Europe’s rules will make the world a lot safer, pointing out that
    the electronics industry accounts for just 2% of the world’s lead. But
    with 28% of his firm’s sales in Europe, he can’t risk running afoul of
    the new law.”The EU has grabbed the green jersey, and they are in the
    lead,” said Barker, whose firm increased its research budget this year
    to handle the new requirements. “Everybody is going to need to fall
    into line.”By leveraging its clout as the world’s largest market, the
    25-country EU has triggered a global shift toward green manufacturing
    that is expected to cost manufacturers billions of dollars. Proponents
    say the requirements will lead to fewer toxic landfills and safer water
    and food. The EU is also in the process of adopting mandatory recycling
    programs for the electronic and electrical products covered by the
    hazardous substances law.Other governments are following suit, eager to
    boost their environmental credentials and worried about becoming
    dumping grounds for products that can’t be sold in Europe.China, which
    some call the world’s workshop, has said it will impose its own version
    of Europe’s hazardous substances standards next year. And though the
    Bush administration has refused to join in, a number of states,
    including California, are imposing similar measures.The state’s
    hazardous substances ban, which was passed in 2003 and will take effect
    in January, does not include flame retardants and applies to fewer
    devices, such as cathode-ray tubes, computers and
    televisions.Electronic waste has become a serious problem, particularly
    in rapidly developing countries such as China with weak environmental
    protection. The substances on the European hit list – lead, mercury,
    cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and
    polybrominated diphenyl ethers (the latter two are flame retardants) -
    have been linked to a variety of health problems.In the U.S, the
    Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 220 million
    tons of electronic waste are discarded every year, with massive loads
    of lead and other heavy metals dumped into landfills.John Frey, manager
    of environmental strategies at Hewlett-Packard Co., said the European
    regulation was fast becoming a de facto global standard. That is why
    his company and many others are bringing all of their products into
    compliance, not just those heading for Europe.As their biggest
    customers shift gears, suppliers of commodities from steel to
    microcircuits to paint have been forced to come up with safer versions
    of substances that have been used in manufacturing for decades.Hewlett-Packard,
    an industry leader in environmentally friendly methods, even revised
    its recycled plastics program because it used ground-up inkjet
    cartridges and plastic bottles that sometimes contained banned
    substances.

    “This has caused unprecedented turmoil in the
    electronics industry supply chain,” said Bijan Dastmalchi, president of
    Symphony Consulting of Sunnyvale, Calif., which works with high-tech
    companies.Dastmalchi and other manufacturing experts said many U.S.
    electronics firms, particularly small operations involved incustomized
    work, are unprepared for the global reforms. They predict that there
    will be delayed shipments and price surges in the coming months
    resulting from last-minute discoveries of hazardous substances or
    shortages of the new, approved versions of steel plating and other
    commonly used materials.
    Companies may also find it harder to sell products or components that don’t meet the European standards.
    Some
    products, such as medical devices, aircraft and the sophisticated
    servers that run the world’s financial data networks, are exempt from
    the July 1 deadline. The EU agreed that the manufacturers of those
    products should not be required to switch until the substitute
    materials have been thoroughly tested for reliability and safety.
    Makers of some products, such as fluorescent light bulbs containing
    mercury, were exempted because no good replacements exist.Solder is
    used in many parts of the manufacturing process, including the assembly
    of electronic circuit boards. Lead is commonly used in solder because
    it allows the material to melt at a lower temperature and keeps it
    smooth. Lead-free solder, which generally contains tin or copper, must
    be treated at a higher temperature.It is also susceptible to “tin
    whiskers,” a phenomenon in which tiny threads of tin sprout from the
    soldered area and can cause short circuits. Products using lead-free
    solder often must be redesigned because individual components can’t
    withstand the higher processing temperature.
    “There’s very little
    data available right now on the reliability of the alternatives to
    lead,” said Jean-Philippe Brisson, a New York attorney and expert on
    the European regulations.Most companies that sell into the EU, and many
    more that don’t, are asking their suppliers to provide documents
    proving that their products comply with the new regulations. A slip-up
    could be costly, particularly if competitors get wind of it. In 2001,
    Dutch officials, acting on a tip, confiscated 1.3 million Sony
    PlayStations because their power cords violated legal limits on
    cadmium, they said.”The company that’s the most at risk here is the
    company whose brand name appears on the product,” Brisson said.Small
    firms such as Electronic Source Co., a Van Nuys assembler of circuit
    boards for computer networking systems and satellites, are struggling
    to meet the new requirements. President Scott Alyn said he would have
    to spend at least $50,000 on a second giant soldering machine so he
    could produce two lines of products, one of which would meet the
    European standards.To prevent contamination, Alyn has segregated his
    supplies and retrained his staff to handle the new materials.”I think
    we are going to have headaches that persist for the next five years,”
    he said.
    Jeff Krull, vice president of product development for Shure
    Inc., an Illinois manufacturer of high-end microphones and other audio
    gear, said executives were “biting our nails” nine months ago about
    whether their suppliers could meet the tougher environmental standards.
    Shure sells about 30% of its products in Europe.But Krull said the
    producers of fire-retardant materials and laminates went into “rapid
    development mode” and appeared to be meeting the demand.
    “We’re
    riding the wave of what the industry is capable of providing,” he
    said.Shure had a few low-volume products, such as older-generation
    audio mixers, that couldn’t profitably be brought into compliance. They
    will be discontinued. Krull estimates that the compliance program has
    cost his firm as much as $5 million.
    Shure will meet the July 1
    deadline “by hook or by crook” for its European production, Krull said.
    But the company will also be able to sell in the U.S. any inventory
    that doesn’t meet the higher standards.
    “This gives us a little bit of a safety valve,” he said.
    That’s
    exactly what worries people such as Charles Corcoran, an official with
    the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. He said part of
    the idea behind the California law, which takes effect in January, was
    to “protect the state from those toxic materials being dumped here.”