Recycling Becomes Designer Responsiblity

By Richard A. Quinnell

As design engineers we often focus our attention on technology without looking at the broader context. The positions of our products in the overall schemes of the world are typically the marketing department’s responsibility and non-technology standards simply put boundary values on the design problem. But sometimes a standard comes along that has nothing to do with technology, yet everything to do with design. Two European environmental standards have arisen that fall into this category.

The directive “Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment” (RoHS) affects designers by limiting choices in the fabrication of electronic equipment. The RoHS Directive bans from the EU market any new electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenal (PCC) and polybrominated biphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Soldering, batteries, packaging and other common components of electronic products will be affected. The restriction takes effect 1 July 2006 and products or their components that do not comply will need to be redesigned in order to stay on the market.

For the most part, meeting these restrictions will fall to manufacturing engineers. They will need to identify suitable replacements for lead-based soldering, packaging plastics, and the like, then communicate those restrictions to the design engineers. Once again, the impact on the designer is mostly boundary value - the range of choices you will have to implement your product design. Still, it may be a significant impact if batteries are an important part of your product. The restrictions on cadmium and mercury make batteries harder to come by.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive will have an even bigger impact on designers, however. It is scheduled to take effect in August, 2005, so it is right upon you. The impact is two-fold: cost and design.

The WEEE directive seeks to minimize the impact of electronic equipment on the environment both during its product lifetime and when it becomes waste. Anyone with an XT-class PC knows that the scrap market for outdated electronics is practically non-existent and landfills are already refusing to accept old monitors unless a surcharge is paid. Multiply this situation by adding cellphones, VCRs, IT equipment, and a host of other electronic devices and you see that the disposal of electronic equipment is becoming a problem for end users.

The WEEE directive makes it the manufacturer’s problem. It requires that manufacturers of equipment for sale in the EU must fund recycling and disposal efforts for their equipment at end of life, either by establishing their own programs or participating in approved central programs. The private end user is not to be charged for any of these programs, and the manufacturer must provide a way for the user to dispose of old electronics freely.

Another element of the WEEE directive targets design. Equipment manufactured for sale in the EU must be designed to be recycled. This means that products must be able to be dismantled and the individual elements separated and handled appropriately. For designers, this means that design must take disassembly in mind along with assembly. WEEE also places a requirement that documentation must include the disassembly and disposal instructions for products to guide the recycling efforts.

With the deadlines so close, designers need to get acquainted with these standards quickly. Fortunately, a number of resources are becoming available to help companies navigate these new requirements. On the web, the WEEE recycling network (www.weeenetwork.com) is a place to start, providing some basic information and references. In addition, TUV Rheinland of North America (www.us.tuv.com/training_and_education/weee-seminar.html) offers on-line training and consultation on meeting the standards.