Electronics May Still Carry Toxins – Article

Prevention is better than cure! We have heard this phrase around us often – in different contexts, mainly health. This phrase has been lately also gaining significance in the world of environment, as we are beginning to comprehend that often the damage caused to environment may be irreversible, and hence prevention might be a better strategy to follow.

Reduction in the use of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in the E-waste Rules in India is also based on this principle. Electronics contain lot of toxic material like lead, mercury, cadmium, halogenated flame retardants, etc.  These toxins are well contained in the product during use, but the problem arises when these equipment reach end of life or become e-waste. If we put toxic material during the manufacturing of electronic equipments, what we will get at the end of life is also toxic material.A framework like RoHS is meant to prevent this hazard  by reducing the toxics, which go into product manufacturing. This also makes the product easier to recycle.

RoHS is part of the E-waste Rules which were notified in 2011 and which became effective from May 2012. RoHS in India focuses on six substances and allows their usage to a certain concentration (see box 1).  The onus to ensure that the electronic equipments (covered under the Rules) do not contain these substances beyond this limit lies on the Producers. The Rules clearly states that imports or placement of electronic equipments shall be permitted only for those products which are compliant with RoHS. The RoHS component of the Rules was given an additional two years to come into effect, as it was assumed that the change in materials may require some time.  So, May 2014 is when the RoHS became enforceable in the country.

Now it’s almost end of October 2014, and unfortunately still there is no sign of RoHS coming into action!

Electronic equipments with high quantities of the hazardous substances are still flooding the market and there is no one to check or stop that. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which is the agency responsible for implementing this part of the Rules, has not issued any guideline till date and therefore no action has been taken against any defaulters. With no instructions issued by implementing agency, the complying Producers are also in the dark about how do they prove conformity to the Rules.

Lead (Pb)                                                                      1000 ppm

Cadmium (Cd)                                                               100 ppm

Mercury (Hg                                                                  1000 ppm

Hexavalent Chromium (Cr6)                                           1000 ppm

Polybrominated Biphenyles (PBB)                                   1000 ppm

Polybrominated Diphenyle Ether (PBDE)                         1000 ppm


Box1: Substances and the maximum concentrations allowed

Is RoHS going to rely on Self Declaration for conformity or there will be other processes? Will the regulatory agencies carry out market surveillance to check if the products in the market meet the required standards? Will there be random technical tests for these products? Who will carry out these tests and who will bear the cost for these detailed testings? Till date, RoHS implementation has many unanswered questions. Like Producers, the implementing agency also had two years to prepare for the RoHS roll out and provide clarity on many of these answers. But sadly we are still where we were in 2011 when these rules were notified. Not even a step forward in 3 years!!

In the current circumstances, the Producers have hardly any obligation towards fulfilling the RoHS provisions or to demonstrate that they have indeed looked at greening their products. There is also little incentive to comply as the non conforming producers continue to thrive unabashedly. To make the Producers conform, there is a need for progressive penalties which is enforced strictly. Customs authorities can also have a crucial role, as electronic products are regularly imported in the country and the ports can be the first barrier point.

Even if the producers are willing to comply, lack of laboratories which can test products for RoHS has been a critical bottleneck and needs to be addressed immediately. There has to be clarity on approved processes, certification, etc.

One important element is to distinguish compliant and non- compliant products. A labeling system can be very advantageous, as it will not only help the regulatory agencies to carry out market surveillance, but will also help consumers in identifying the greener products and opt for them. 

There can probably be many more measures, but the important question is – when do we take them and why there is so much delay. We need to act fast to ensure that electronic equipments are not a burden but only a resource.

By Priti Mahesh