January 2007 Electrical Apparatus

January 2007 Electrical Apparatus

This is a summary of the Electrical Apparatus  featured technical article,  by Richard L. Nailen, P.E. , which appeared in two parts in the January and February 2007 issues. 

Rapid growth of the consumer electronics industry has been characterized by ever-decreasing useful life spans for products such as computers, communications equipment, games, and industrial controls. Materials used in batteries, lamps, wiring and terminations, electronic displays, switches, and circuit board assemblies include heavy metals and organic compounds that are serious health hazards unless carefully disposed of when electrical equipment is discarded as obsolete, worn out, or defective.

Recognizing that such discards form the world’s fastest-growing waste stream (estimated at 50 million tonnes annually), governments at local, national, and international levels have begun establishing controls on the use and disposal of potentially dangerous materials in electrical equipment, Drawing the most attention are two regulations issued by the European Parliament in January 2003 to take effect in 2006.

The first, the “Restriction of Hazardous Substances” or RoHS Directive, calls for European Union member states to limit the use in a wide range of electrical or electronic products of six hazardous materials: lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and two organic compounds used in plastics. Exemptions exist for military hardware and some other applications. One of the most important restrictions is on the use of lead in solder, forcing manufacturers to find cost-effective substitutes that can require product design and factory process changes. Similar (and sometimes more restrictive) regulations have been adopted by Japan, China, and a number of the United States.

The second EU Directive is known as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment). It promotes safe disposal and recycling of end-of-life products. The Directive is an outgrowth of a 165-nation treaty, the Basel Convention of 1989. Lax enforcement by often-corrupt local officials, and massive exporting of discards by Western industrialized nations, has caused electronic discrads (“e-waste”) to flood into Asian and African countries where crude salvage methods have created major health hazards and poisoned the environment. Although aimed at correcting that situation, WEEE suffers from unclear enforcement guidelines. In Europe, recycling rates have been far below WEEE goals.

Meanwhile, as perceived life spans of computers and cell phones continue to shrink, e-waste disposal remains a growing problem.

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