Restriction of the use of hazardous substances in electronics: what is next?
The European Union restricts hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. Hazardous substances represent a risk for human health as well as for the environment. Directive 2012/19/EU on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), together with Directive 2011/65/EU (RoHS Directive), regulate the use and the treatment of certain substances in electrical and electronic equipment. In February 2022, the European Commission initiated consultations about potential changes to the current RoHS Directive, the Directive on the restriction of the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment.
Why is the EU changing some directives?
As for many other industries, the European Union aims to improve the circular economy in the electronics sector. Boosting the circular economy would mean enabling cleaner material cycles, protecting human health, and contributing to a more sustainable waste management. In fact, the initiative of changing the mentioned Directive is part of the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) and contributes implementing other environment-related plans. Overall, this is part of a bigger picture framed by the EU to become climate-neutral by 2050.
Assessment and consultation on the Directive
The RoHS Directive certainly plays an important role in reducing hazardous e-waste and related environmental impact. However, the recent assessment and consultations revealed that substance restrictions are sometimes complex and challenging to put in place. Additionally, several bureaucratical burdens have a further negative impact on the application of such restrictions. Some of the main obstacles pointed out in the consultation include:
- too complex rules on exemption validity;
- deadlines and length of exemption process;
- issues process of reviewing the list of restricted substances;
- enforcement difficulties (particularly in e-commerce);
- insufficient and outdated provisions to support the circular economy;
- consistency with other EU legislations covering substance assessment and restrictions, or specific to Electrical and Electronic Equipment.
The importance of adopting a harmonised approach
The electronics sector is highly reliant on cross-border trade. Waste recycling and as the emission of hazardous substances into the environment are not actions limited within the borders of one country. According to the opinions collected in the Impact Assessment of the Commission, national legislations might represent a barrier and negatively influence the aim of the Directive. In these terms, stakeholders suggest that adopting a harmonised approach across the EU is important to prevent disruptions in the Single Market and establish a sustainable circular economy. In other words, the objectives of environmental protection and safeguarding of human health are better achieved at the EU level rather than by action taken at the Member States level.
Options and potential impacts
In light of the consultation, possible proposals to change the RoHS Directive arose. The European Commission proposes :
- maintaining the RoHS Directive and introducing some updates, especially with explanations about the interaction with other legislation;
- simplifying and clarifying the RoHS Directive, particularly addressing the exemption validity, substance restrictions, consistency with other legislation, and implementation and enforcement;
- transforming the RoHS Directive into a regulation;
- repealing the RoHS Directive and incorporating its provisions into the REACH Regulation;
- repealing the RoHS Directive and addressing environmental product requirements under sustainable products legislation.
Changes in the Directive will likely have impacts on many aspects. From an economic point of view, more restrictions to apply in a short time would lead to increased costs throughout the supply chain. On the other hand, if the Directive becomes clearer and simpler, there might be a decrease in the related administrative costs and burdens. Overall, the EEE industry could even start voluntarily substituting certain substances to be prepared for further future bans. As a result, the electronics sector might revolutionise itself, significantly moving towards safer and sustainable products.
Safety and sustainability directly have health and environmental impacts as well. People and the environment would benefit from a reduced amount of hazardous chemicals in EEE. For instance, in recycling plants and factories occupational diseases could experience a decrease. At the same time, less hazardous substances would be released into the environment, leading also to lower costs related to environmental remediation. Other impacts considered cover the impact on fundamental rights and the impact on the simplification of the existing administrative burden.
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Expert Consultant, Publications Department
European Commission. (2022). Review: Restriction of the use of hazardous substances in electronics. Retrieved on 07/04/2022 from https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/13137-Review-Restriction-of-the-use-of-hazardous-substances-in-electronics_en