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Selecting non-hazardous materials in electronic products

Selecting non-hazardous materials in electronic products

Electronic waste (e-waste) contains a large variety of heavy metals which threaten the environment and human health. New research has assessed environmental and technological preferences for materials in products of individuals within the US electronics industry. Strict international legislation, such as the EU's RoHS Directive, was found to reduce the use of lead for companies that market their products abroad.

The EU RoHS Directive1, which restricts the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment, took effect in 2006. It is closely linked with the WEEE Directive2 which sets collection, recycling and recovery targets for electrical goods and is part of a legislative initiative to solve the problem of huge amounts of toxic e-waste. In contrast, the US has no comparable national policy on electronic products for its domestic or international market, but many of its products are marketed in Europe.

The researchers examined the perceptions on lead-free electronics of individuals employed within the US electronics industry by conducting a survey. They conducted an online survey which had 109 respondents from the US electronics companies and interpreted the responses from three different perspectives: environmental impact, technological challenges and business strategies. They focused on environmental risks to human health, resource depletion and biodiversity, and targeted individuals in corporations that use lead-free solders in electronics and electrical products or have been affected by the international lead-free legislation market.

The results revealed that 70 per cent of the companies surveyed have already adopted lead-free solder for electronic products, in response to international lead-free initiatives. Overall, tin-silver-copper (SnAgCu) was found to be the preferred alternative to lead which coincides to the family of solders that the EU recommends, along with other industry organisations. Human health was given higher priority by the individuals over resource depletion and biodiversity, when considering which replacement solder to choose.
In addition, the findings indicated that the next most important criteria used to select the alternative lead-free solders are solderability, reliability issues and compatibility with the components and equipment used with conventional solders containing lead. Despite many initiatives for environmental improvement, the environmental impact of new alternatives was not a very important concern. For example, SnAgCu is the alternative selected by most companies even though it is not the most environmentally friendly.

Corporate business type was important in determining the strategy of lead-free adoption, whereas company size had no influence. Individuals within small and medium enterprises in the US electronics industry are indeed knowledgeable about the potential impact of the ongoing lead-free legislation and they use lead-free products. Direct regulatory pressure (e.g. through the RoHS Directive) results in companies that target European and Asian markets being more likely to use lead-free solders than those with mainly domestic markets. Insights into the participants' values, specifically when considering the potential environmental impacts of lead-free electronic products, could be used to encourage discussion about transitions to more environmentally sustainable products with industrial stakeholders. It may also explain corporate approaches to handling risk and uncertainty about legislation associated with potentially hazardous products.

  1. See: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32002L0095:EN:NOT
  2. See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/weee/index_en.htm
Source: Zhou, X., Nixon, H., Ogunseitan, O.A., Shapiro, A.A. & Schoenung, J.M. (2011) Transition to Lead-Free Products in the US Electronics Industry: A Model of Environmental, Technical, and Economic Preferences. Environmental Modeling and Assessment. 16:107-118. This study is free to view at: www.springerlink.com/content/981vn0x328201586

Contact: jmshoenung@ucdavis.edu

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