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Expert Viewpoint: The RoHS Directive

Jun 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jon Melchin

What it means for the U.S. construction market.

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batteries in a group

IT and audiovisual products are found everywhere in buildings that strive to blend cutting-edge technology and design. RoHS and similar regulations profoundly impact these products. Environmental issues in the audiovisual industry, for example, are particularly broad. In California, AA, AAA, and 9V batteries all need to be shipped to a state-licensed recycling center now—throwing them in the trash is not an option anymore.

The booming construction market in the United States has spawned an increased awareness of the environmental impact of today's new builds. As a result of this surge in construction, there has been widespread adoption by the architectural community, building owners, and construction professionals of design initiatives that produce sustainable, high-performance structures to minimize the negative impact on public health and the environment. Savvy designers are always looking for products or technologies that can contribute to sustainable design when used effectively. Perhaps more significantly, there has been a tremendous amount of recent media attention drawn to environmental issues such as global warming and pollution, opening the eyes of the public and rippling across governmental entities.

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program has given specification guidelines for designers to focus on to achieve green initiatives within the built environment. Reducing environmental impacts, maximizing energy efficiency, and conserving natural resources are all major aspects of LEED. LEED awards points toward multiple levels of green certification for designs that meet the LEED criteria. In one category — Materials and Resources (MR) Credit 4, Recycled Content — LEED allows points for products that are made with pre- and post-consumer materials. Recycling has been mainstream for decades, but a new development is making its way onto the environmentally conscious scene: RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances), a directive established by the European Union that went into effect in July 2006. Although it is still even under the radar of many green specialists in North America, RoHS could soon have substantial impact on the way products are selected for sustainable projects.


RoHS traces its beginning back in 2003, when the European Union (EU) first adopted this directive. Research conducted by the EU's environmental collaborative in the late 1990s revealed that large amounts of hazardous waste was being dumped into landfills across Western Europe. Shortly thereafter, the collaborative put the ball in motion that would lead to the current RoHS directive. It took effect on July 1, 2006, but it is not a law; it is simply a directive, but a popular one nonetheless. This directive drastically reduces the permitted amounts of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment.

The WEEE man

The WEEE man, which originated in London, is a 23ft.-tall figure composed of 3.3 tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)—the total amount an average person in the United Kingdom is likely to consume in his or her lifetime.

Another recent environmental initiative from the EU is WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), which took effect in August 2005. It is designed to minimize the waste stream of electrical and electronic equipment, and it complements the EU measures on landfill and waste incineration. Trends in electronic waste generation suggest that increased technological change and decreasing chip costs are driving the development of new products and the obsolescence rates of older electronics. WEEE emphasizes the need for recycling these end-of-life cycle products. The directive imposes the responsibility for the ecological disposal or reuse/refurbishment of such equipment on the manufacturer. Some manufacturers offer leasing and free-of-charge take-back services. According to the EPA, most states in the United States and local municipalities participate in various ecycling programs.

The targeted substances of the EU's RoHS include the restriction of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). The maximum concentration levels cannot exceed 0.1 percent by weight per substance. Cadmium is found in certain types of batteries, and it is used in the production of electronic circuit boards. Hexavalent-chromium compounds exist in chromate pigments for dyes, paints, primers, and other decorative or protective coatings. PBB and PBDE are flame retardants used in some plastics, and lead and mercury are often found in electronic and electrical equipment. Trends suggested that the toxic waste stream would only escalate, creating a massive, growing source of contamination. This caused the EU to take measures to clamp down on these hazardous substances.

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