The goals of big business and thefederal government are not always in alignment, but national environmental laws that mirror two European Union directives — the Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) — are in the best interest of the U.S. electronics industry. A look at the current landscape reveals why.
With no national RoHS-style legislation yet proposed (or likely even discussed), California has gone ahead and enacted its own rule (SB 20/SB 50), which takes effect Jan. 1.
State rules aimed at restricting mercury in consumer products are also appearing in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York.
These varying state-by-state rules are already causing problems for electronics manufacturers and distributors. The cost of tracking and meeting varying state requirements both now and in the future is almost too staggering to contemplate. Are we going to wait until we have 50 state laws with 50 flavors before we enact a uniform national standard for our industry? Or worse, are we going to wait for major cities to begin enacting their own individual laws?
We are currently out of step with other major countries in regard to electronic product rules. RoHS and WEEE are just the beginning. The European Union's Energy-using Products and Registration Directive; End-of-Life Vehicle Directive; Packaging Directive; and Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals directives are also a concern and will have a dramatic impact on our industry.
China and South Korea have recognized the need for national RoHS rules and are implementing regulations similar to those in place in the European Union. Both countries want to ensure that their manufacturers meet international standards and are able to continue exporting electronic goods to the European Union and the rest of the world. China already manufactures about 25 percent of the electronic devices imported into the European Union. The competitive stakes are high for the United States as well.
Enacting national RoHS and WEEE rules is an environmentally responsible thing to do. Computers, TVs and cell phones have a shorter life span than ever before and will ultimately wind up in landfills where the hazardous substances in them can threaten the environment.
There is pressure building for the government to enact a uniform national e-waste (or WEEE) law. Congress recently instructed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct hearings on and study the e-waste problem. Its report, "Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse," was issued in November 2005. The report acknowledges the burden that patchwork state requirements are placing on manufacturers, retailers and recyclers. The report recommended that a national WEEE-style rule be written. However, nothing comparable (with the exception of California's rule) has been undertaken to restrict the harmful substances present in electronic products in the first place — during the design phase.
It is likely that before there will be federal RoHS or WEEE legislation, there first needs to be support and consensus from our own industry.