Greening Consumer Electronics Through Strategic Design
By Alexandra J. McPherson, Managing Director, Clean Production Action
Issue 3 Spring 2010
Electronics manufacturers, standards bodies and legislators have begun to take notice of the human health and environmental concerns associated with the use of brominated and chlorinated compounds in electronic products. An array of conflicting definitions and policies have emerged to address these concerns at various levels. A new report called Greening Consumer Electronics is intended to show the feasibility of re-engineering consumer electronic products in order to avoid the use of these compounds. It recommends a definition to address human health and environmental concerns that can be implemented by various industries.
CATALYST editors Maggie de la Vega and Kevin Rorick sat down with Alexandra McPherson to learn more.
“Thousands of substances are used to meet the highly complex and technical performance requirements of today’s electronic products.
As growing volumes of consumer electronic products enter the waste and recycling streams, substances of high concern are unintentionally released into the environment. At present, the infrastructure to safely reuse and recycle obsolete equipment is insufficient. In addition, electronic waste, one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, is increasingly exported to developing countries with even less capacity for appropriate waste management.
In 2003, the European Union responded with two precedent-setting directives: WEEE, the Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment directive, which requires companies to take back and recycle their equipment; and RoHS, the Restriction of Hazardous Substance directive, which restricts the use of certain heavy metals and brominated flame retardants.”
Excerpted from Greening Consumer Electronics
Bromine and chlorine–based compounds are used ubiquitously in the production of today’s modern electronic products as flame retardants, solvents, dyes, adhesives, and plastic resins. Until recently, electronics manufacturers did not limit the concentrations of bromine and chlorine used in their products. But in response to the growing human health and environmental problems associated with the use of these compounds, leading manufacturers are now assessing the chemistry of their products and engineering solutions to avoid the use of brominated and chlorinated chemicals.
Clean Production Action (CPA) and ChemSec have compiled case studies that provide examples of seven companies, which have removed most forms of bromine and chlorine from their product lines. The case studies were recently compiled into a document entitled: Greening Consumer Electronics. The purpose of this report is to allow parties outside the industry to see the level of conformance that can be met today, as well as provide a tool for industrial designers and engineers designing the next generation of greener electronic devices.
Tool for CATALYZING Change: To access the full report on Greening Consumer Electronic’s, visit www.cleanproduction.org/ElectronicsGreeningConsumer.php
Q: Why is the removal of bromine and chlorine in consumer electronics imperative and how are these elements linked to climate change?
Electronic products are going to be a critical part of the solution to climate change. It is estimated that billions of tons of carbon emissions can be reduced through the development of “smart” products, buildings, cities and transportation systems that greatly increase human efficiency. As the global community looks to electronic products to further a climate-safe economy, the materials and chemicals used to build these products need to be more benign by design. Using hazardous substances like bromine and chlorine in electronics forces the exertion of inefficient energy resources in order to manage toxic waste and inhibits the ability to recycle and remanufacture obsolescent products in closed-loop material systems. This is not an efficient use of resources, nor does it positively contribute to a climate-safe economy. Accounting for and improving the impact of our material systems for the next generation of electronic products and technologies can accomplish this. By removing bromine and chlorine from products, companies like Apple, Sony Ericsson and Nokia are opening the door for new materials and chemicals that can function more efficiently.
CATALYST insight: “Elemental Approach” is the method of focusing on chemicals on the group level instead of as individual compounds.
Q: Can you elaborate on the “elemental approach” and how designers can incorporate it into their design process?
Most chemical management programs are focused on single substance restrictions. For example, legislation in Europe restricts certain brominated (bromine-based) compounds for use in electronic products. Many manufacturers are going beyond legal compliance by targeting additional high volume applications of bromine and chlorine like brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride. Successful implementation of substance-by-substance restrictions in the electronics sector is difficult given the fact that hundreds of suppliers produce thousands of parts, each part containing many different substances. To address this challenge and move beyond the cost inefficiencies of managing substance by substance restrictions, some companies are adopting the “elemental approach” to insure that nearly all forms of bromine and chlorine are restricted regardless of their function or use. This recognizes two critical realities. Most forms of bromine and chlorine pose environmental risks particularly during end-of-life management of electronic products. Verification of specific compounds is inefficient, very expensive and sometimes not possible given that analytical tests are not available for all substances. Whereby verification at the elemental level can be done with cost effective analytical testing mechanisms, such as x-ray fluorescence (XRF) that are readily available and commonly used by the electronics’ global supply chain. As we move forward with the aim of designing towards a climate-safe economy, improving the chemistry of the next generation of products is critical to ensuring that we are not shifting environmental risks and putting additional burdens on an already stressed ecosystem. Many of the companies adopting the “elemental approach” are incidentally the same companies who are leading many of the efforts to increase energy efficiency of our products and reduce their carbon footprint.
Q: With so many manufacturing processes overseas, what regulatory body will ensure these standards are met?
The European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive has established a de facto global environmental standard, but managing compliance at a global level is difficult. For new product models that entered the marketplace after RoHS restrictions went into effect in 2006, many product manufacturers have opted to require worldwide compliance with RoHS. In the absence of a global regulatory body to monitor compliance outside the limited market surveillance efforts in the European Union, most companies rely on a paper trail of material declarations from suppliers. Material declarations do not provide companies and regulatory authorities with sufficient documentation that these chemicals are removed from the product. Nor does it give manufacturers the ability to address and take corrective action for the inevitable cases whereby materials are out of conformance with regulatory restrictions. This created a costly situation for Sony when the Netherlands banned the sale of their PlayStation consoles because the cadmium in the cables exceeded regulatory limits. Lost sales and costs to re-design the product were estimated at $150 million. Companies investing in rigorous, transparent compliance programs that rely on some form of analytical testing for verification recognize the importance and business value of the elemental approach that allows for inexpensive, regular testing.
Q: In terms of the EU’s directives, WEEE and RoHS, is the U.S. adopting any similar mandated measures? The report describes companies that are exceeding these initiatives on their own accord, but can we expect the U.S. government to regulate electronic toxicity levels in the near future?
Some states like California are adopting RoHS restrictions in their legislation requiring consumer electronic products to be collected and recycled at the end-of-life. At the federal level, the EPA has not proposed any chemical restrictions specific to electronic products. The EPA’s Design for Environment Department, however, has initiated a major project in partnership with NGOs and other industry stakeholders to evaluate the toxicity of alternatives to the largest brominated flame retardant used in the electronic sector, tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA). This assessment, when completed, will provide critical guidance to electronic product designers who are tasked with finding safer substitutes to bromine-based flame retardants commonly used in printed circuit boards.
Q: Can you tell us more about Clean Production Action (CPA)’s “Green Screen for Safer Chemicals?” Is this tool readily available and accessible to designers?
CPA’s Green Screen for Safer Chemicals is an open source comparative chemical assessment tool that engineers and designers can use to prefer greener chemicals. It classifies chemicals against sixteen hazard endpoints that adopt global authoritative standards. By establishing four benchmarks that range from very problematic chemicals to more benign chemicals, it seeks to avoid the situation whereby resources are inefficiently used to transition from one problematic chemical into another one that could be of equal risk. The Green Screen provides a clear and transparent decision-making protocol to screen out hazardous chemicals during the design phase. It emphasizes the inherent hazard of chemicals as the critical starting point and seeks to avoid managing the uncontrollable risks of using chemicals that pose high risks to human health and the environment throughout the life cycle of consumer products. The tool has been piloted on alternatives to brominated flame retardants and has demonstrated the viability of safer alternatives to these compounds. Hewlett Packard is now using it to assess alternatives to brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride to guide their suppliers in developing safer and greener alternatives to these restricted substances. In 2010, a Green Screen wiki will be launched to provide users with an interactive website.
To learn more about the Green Screen and to access CPA’s Red List of Chemicals, download at www.cleanproduction.org/Greenscreen.php
Q: What is more likely to cause the shift in manufacturing processes: consumer demand, company initiatives for strategic advantage or new tech advances from component manufacturers?
Product manufacturers, like Apple and Sony Ericsson are leading the transition away from highly hazardous chemicals. By making design and material investment decisions, they are able to forecast a market place and regulatory climate that will be increasingly sensitive to the environmental and human health impacts of products. Major electronic component manufacturers, like Seagate, DSM and Nanya are positioning themselves to gain competitive advantage with these product manufacturers by engineering components that meet increasingly stringent supply chain specifications. Furthermore, with tools like EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) entering the market place, consumers and institution purchasers can make more informed cost-effective decisions about the products they buy; consumers can play a more pivotal role in driving market changes towards greener products. This will increase market incentives for those companies that made early investments in environmentally improved materials and product technologies.
Q: Can you tell me more about EPEAT and how it is used? Is it widely available to electronics designers and manufacturers?
EPEAT, which stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, is a green product registry that allows computer companies to self-declare their products to a standard held by IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), a major standard setting body in the electronics sector. The standard is developed by NGOs, governments, academia and manufacturers who work through a process governed by IEEE to establish criteria that rewards environmental improvements (recycling, energy efficiency, toxic use reduction and material and resource efficiency) across the life cycle of electronic products. Currently, the standard has 51 required and optional criteria and only applies to computer products. This is set to change with new standards being developed for imaging devices and televisions. Product designers have the opportunity to work towards three tiers in EPEAT, gold, silver and bronze. To meet bronze level, a product must comply with all required criteria. To meet silver and gold levels, manufacturers have to increase their percentage of optional criteria achieved. The registry was initially developed for institutional buyers like the federal government, which is required by an Executive Order to purchase 95% of their computer products through EPEAT. In the coming year, EPEAT will likely enter the consumer space. It is also being made available in 40 countries due to growing demand internationally for this type of purchasing tool. The current computer standard will likely be updated in the coming year and NGOs, in partnership with other key stakeholders, will work to develop criteria that gives market recognition to companies removing bromine and chlorine from their product lines.
Q: The ENERGY STAR certification has become a well-recognized label among consumer products. Do you foresee the certification evolving to also acknowledge toxicity levels and ease of recycling?
What differentiates EPEAT from Energy Star is that it was intended to fill a gap in the marketplace through a purchasing and design tool that creates a tiered system optimizing multiple environmental attributes across the life cycle of electronic products. EPEAT has strived for harmonization with existing standards to avoid duplication. The current EPEAT standard, 1680.1 for computers, requires products to be compliant with Energy Star. As EPEAT continues to evolve and mature as a critical tool to differentiate products in the marketplace based on their environmental performance, partnerships with other eco-labels, like Energy Star, are being explored to avoid consumer confusion.
Q: What should consumers do to mitigate the effects of unsafe recycling practices of electronic waste composed of bromine, chlorine or similar toxins?
Most manufacturers in the United States have established programs to take back electronic products at the end of life. Consumer participation in these programs is critical to closing the materials loop and providing manufacturers with larger volumes of products to reuse and recycle. Consumer support and pressure is also necessary to ensure that manufacturers adopt responsible recycling practices that do not allow hazardous materials to be exported to developing countries where there is not an established infrastructure to handle these materials. Basel Action Network has an e-Stewards program whereby they certify recyclers who are implementing best practices and can partner with manufacturers who do not have their own recycling facilities.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Best Practices — Apple
Remove hazardous compounds at the elemental level (eg. mercury, arsenic, bromine)
Anticipate future regulations
Inventory greenhouse gas emissions across the lifecycle of shipped products
Best Practices — Sony
Implement a materials declaration system
Establish a development timeline for first-to-market sustainable products
Establish new supply chain partnerships
About the Author:
Alexandra J. McPherson, Managing Director, Clean Production Action
For the past twelve years, Alexandra McPherson has worked in the environmental nonprofit industry developing and leveraging support for policy and business solutions to some of our most pressing environmental challenges. She has written publications and developed initiatives that demonstrate the viability of new solutions such as Green Chemistry and producer responsibility.
In 2001, Ms. McPherson was chosen to launch a new dynamic start-up organization, Clean Production Action (CPA), which is dedicated to designing solutions for greener chemicals, sustainable materials and environmentally preferred products.
Ms. McPherson directs CPA’s programmatic work in the electronics sector with the aim of establishing tools and resources that allow for the use of sustainable material systems. She has co-authored numerous publications, including the first toolkit on extended producer responsibility (an innovative material strategy that holds producers responsible for the life cycle impact of their products) and Greening Consumer Electronics: the move away from Bromine and Chlorine.
Greening Consumer Electronics Report?: www.cleanproduction.org/Electronics.GreeningConsumer.php
Green Screen for Safer Chemicals: ?www.cleanproduction.org/Greenscreen.php
EPEAT: Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool: www.epeat.net
To locate recycling resources in your area, visit: www.computertakeback.com
More on Apple Corporation’s Sustainable Initiatives: http://www.apple.com/environment/
More on Sony Ericssson’s Environmental Program: www.sonyericsson.com/cws/corporate/company/sustainability/overview
Basel Action Network: www.e-stewards.org/