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October 2009: Barack Obama has made the environment a priority in his administration. And the electronics industry will likely feel the impact as the new president of the United States changes federal environmental policies.
Exactly where, when, and how such changes will affect electronics is anybody’s guess. However, in an interview by Electronic Business, industry watchers were noted as saying that they "see the possibility of more federal regulation as well as market opportunities created by new spending programs".
During his campaign, Obama indicated support for federal laws regulating electronic-waste (e-waste) disposal and reducing the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing products. “We can also challenge manufacturers of computers, printers and other electronic equipment to more effectively take back these products when they are discarded so that their components can be reused rather than shipped to landfills,” he told Discover Magazine in September 2008. So why is this so important to Europe and our WEEE? Well, a large proportion of the equipment we purhcase is developed in the US and manufactured in countries that don’t have such legislation in place. As these countries fall outside of EU legislation, they are free to ignore ROHS (the restriction of Hazardous Substances), a piece of legislation that prohibits the use of hazardous substances in Electronics inside the EU. If the US were to implement such a change in the manufacture and make-up of electronic goods, it’s impact would- thanks to the supply chain- be global.
However, interest groups have grabbed hold of this public statement as evidence that Obama will push for new federal e-waste regulation. The most likely scenario is a federal law banning e-waste exports- meaning the US will have to recycle electronic wastes internally, rather than shipping them out to developing countries. The problem of shady recyclers shipping old electronics to places like China and India, where they are disassembled by poor people who are then exposed to hazardous materials, drew increased public scrutiny late last year thanks in part to ‘The Basel Action Network’, ‘Greenpeace’ and ‘Friends of the Earth’.
Related to and yet separate from the e-waste issue is how to deal with toxic materials that are designed into electronics. Mike Kirschner, president and managing partner of Design Chain Associates LLC, thinks the Obama Administration will try to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA- 15 U.S.C. (1976)) to make it more restrictive. A number of reports have indicated that this potential change is due to the European Union’s implementation of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) directive, and Kirschner stated that. “We’ll see the fed give the EPA more power to restrict and control substances and their applications,” he predicted. “Industry is already gearing up for that battle.” Whilst this may be technically correct in that it’ll allow for the future movement of new Chemical products from the US into Europe, the purpose of REACH may have been mis-interpreted by some in the Industry. This author believes that this may be technically incorrect becuase REACH is designed to improve the Heath and Safety awareness of individual chemicals, not the chemical constituents of a finished Consumer Product. This Author believes that any modification to the TSCA will be as a direct result of both ROHS and REACH and the need to comply with them both so as to be able to continue trading freely within the EU.
An overlooked part of this proposed change is the influence of lobbyists, many of whom in this instance are not acting on behalf of Manufacturers. Environmental lobbyists and activists alike have been pushing for change to the industry for a number of years. During this period, there has been some change within the Electronics industry, with a number starting to adopt chemical control measures as a means to gaining some "Green" credentials. However, Environmental Campaigners have become more vocal with regard to the export of Hazardous e-wastes and the harm toxins are having on developing countries. Proposals to change both the Chemicals Industry and the e-waste industry may have come about as a result of the "bad press" surrounding this issue as well as the evident environmental disaster that will occur if the industry is not controlled in a more stringent way.
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About the Author: Richard Anthony Johnson
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