As the electronics industry grapples with the coming RoHS deadline, new environmental compliance mysteries loom from China’s recently released environmental law. China issued its own RoHS-type directive in late October, leaving more questions than answers. China’s law, called the Administration on the Control of Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products matches the European Union’s (EU) RoHS deadline of July 1, 2006, but it many areas, it diverts from RoHS.
So far, the exemptions to the law have been not spelled out. A separate “catalog” will define more precisely which product groups will be exempted from the law. But the catalog is not yet available. “China hasn’t included the catalog of what they see as exceptions, and they haven’t indicated how a company can apply for exceptions,” says Michael Kirschner, president of San Francisco, Calif.-based Design Chain Associates. Kirschner has posted an English translation of China’s directive at his Website: Designchainassociates.com.
Kirschner notes that until we see the catalog, it’s unclear what products are included in the legislation. “We need to see the catalog to know what is restricted, how it will be restricted and what the timeframe is,” says Kirschner. He notes the lack of transparency has been a source of unease among companies in the electronics industry. “There is a lot of concern. Companies are in the midst of evaluating China’s law and trying to understand it,” says Kirschner. “There are definitely similarities and differences with RoHS.”
The World Trade Organization requires a 60- to 90-day period comment period before new trade legislation can go on the books. The 60-day period ends on December 1. “Maybe if they get an onslaught of questions they will do something to assure [the electronics industry] that they will harmonize with the European Union law.”
So far, that doesn’t seem likely. Even the early information on the law indicates many departures from the EU’s RoHS directive. China has identified the same six substances that are banned by the RoHS directive, but China’s law indicates that other hazardous substances may be added at a future date. Another difference in the China law is that it provides for annual revisions. The RoHS legislation can only be reviewed every four years. The China law also specifies there will be product inspections, which is absent from RoHS. “All products have to be certified and they have to be inspected at the port of entry,” says Kirschner.
Another sensitive subject in China’s law is its provision that products must be produced without the use of restricted substances. RoHS makes no provision for the production of goods. Instead it focuses only on the finished goods themselves. “The China law says restricted substances can’t be used in the production of goods,” explains Kirschner. “There are a couple places – such as with PC boards – where this can make a difference. Some of those boards are produced with sacrificial layers of hazardous substances.”
Kirschner notes there is uncertainty regarding how responsive China’s government will be to questions from those in other countries that belong to the World Trade Organization. With little history in formal trade governance, it’s not clear whether China’s government will engage in the give and take of trade laws or whether it will simply issue an edict like this environmental law without discussion and potential modification to harmonize that law with other country’s rules – such as RoHS.