Industry tackles a grave issue

End-of-life and other product stewardship initiatives will impact chemical plants. An agreement to lessen the environmental impact of chemicals production will have global ramifications. Meanwhile, European end-of-life directives on electrical and electronic equipment already are having a worldwide effect.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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The main outcome of that February conference was the adoption of a Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) by government ministers and high-ranking representatives of the industry from around the world.

Within the chemical industry, product stewardship has become enshrined as one of the seven codes of management practices that play a key role in the RC certification process operated by the ACC.

The result of several years of negotiation, SAICM has the ambitious aim of achieving by 2020 “the use and production of chemicals in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment.” Now formally adopted by the U.N. Environment Program, the initiative has strong support from the industry. “It is clear that SAICM can only achieve its goal by building a new partnership approach, with joint activities among producers, downstream users, governments and other stakeholders, based on a strongly felt shared responsibility,” says Peter Elverding, chairman of the board of the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), Brussels, Belgium.

The first steps in that new approach were taken by the ICCA at the Dubai meeting with the launch of the Responsible Care Global Charter and the Global Product Strategy, in partnership with the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va. The concept of Responsible Care (RC) isn’t new, of course — it started in 1985 in Canada and now has spread to more than 50 countries. The Global Charter is set to widen the concept further, while the Global Product Strategy will expand and coordinate the industry’s commitment to product stewardship, managing the safe use of chemicals throughout their life cycle. The strategy “builds on the success of our product stewardship efforts under Responsible Care,” says Jack Gerard, ACC president and CEO.

Within the chemical industry, product stewardship has become enshrined as one of the seven codes of management practices that play a key role in the RC certification process operated by the ACC. By the end of 2007 all of the more than 200 companies taking part in the RC initiative will have to have gained this certification — either the RCMS, which verifies that a company has implemented the RC management system, or the RC14001 that combines Responsible Care with the international ISO 14001 environmental management standard.

As director of toxicology services for NSF International, a certifying organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., Clif McLellan is involved in the day-to-day testing of chemical products. “I think there is definitely a growing interest in product stewardship from companies looking to establish that their products are safe from start to finish,” he says. “Sometimes it might be for marketing reasons — separating their products from their competitors’ — but entwined in there is some work being done as a protection against litigation.”

European initiatives

Global Lifescience Solutions, an NSF International Company formerly known as The Toxicology Group, offers a range of testing programs and services to chemical companies requiring risk or safety assessments of their products, including work for overseas and other companies seeking ISO certification. That international aspect to its work could soon grow as NSF is “looking at the pros and cons,” McLellan says, of starting a program to certify chemical products under the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) proposals of the European Union (EU), which are currently going through the European Parliament and expected to achieve final approval by the end of year.

Although the ACC considers the REACH proposals to be “unworkable, impractical, costly and burdensome,” it seems highly likely that any chemical company producing or importing into the EU more than one metric ton per year of any relevant chemical substance will have to have it registered, evaluated (i.e., tested) and, if it’s highly hazardous, authorized some time within the next year. And with those “relevant substances” currently numbering around 30,000 chemicals, it could be a busy time ahead for testing bodies like NSF.

That may be for the future, but other EU directives already are making their presence felt here and now, as Lynn Bergeson, CP’s regulatory editor, recently reported (August's Compliance Advisor). Two that are especially relevant to product suppliers to the chemical industry — and therefore for the product stewardship of the industry’s own supply chain — are the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive 2002/96/EC and the Restrictions of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) Directive 2002/95/EC.

The WEEE Directive aims to reduce the amount of electrical and electronic goods going to landfill or incineration at the end of their useful lives. It mandates that producers take their equipment back and recycle where possible. Consumers are expected to be able to return items they wish to discard to the manufacturers free of charge.

RoHS meanwhile has a more immediate impact on product design. Since July 1, it has banned the manufacture and importing into the EU of any electrical and electronic equipment containing the heavy metals lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, together with the flame retardants polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

NSF already is involved in certifying that products meet the RoHS Directive and is considering introducing a testing program for WEEE compliance as well, McClellan says. Although both of these directives will initially most heavily impact the huge consumer markets for products such as computers, televisions, DVDs, cellphones and all the other trappings of our digital age, they are nevertheless targeted at all electrical and electronic equipment, consumer and industrial.

The goals of both aren’t dissimilar, of course, to many of the voluntary initiatives already in place in the U.S. Laudable as these efforts are, they don’t have the same force as the EU directives. Whether mandates will emerge, either on a state or federal level, remains to be seen, but there certainly are signs of a more coercive approach being taken elsewhere around the world. “RoHS-type initiatives are being rolled out in countries like Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea and, from next year, China,” says Aidan Turnbull, head of the global Eco-Design practice with international consultants Environ, Bath, U.K. and Arlington, Va., which runs a web-based service (www.b2bweee.com) to help companies comply with both WEEE and RoHS.

Advising groups such as the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va., and the Environment Committee of the New York City Council, Turnbull says, “the U.S. is quite a way behind Europe in terms of WEEE-type legislation. There is Senate Bill 50 in California, for example, which only focuses on a small group of household products. The EU regulations, on the other hand, cover everything listed in ten categories, including a huge number of B2B [business to business] products.”

Control system impact

One major uncertainty at the moment concerns so-called Category 9 products, “monitoring and control instruments.” These fall within the scope of the WEEE Directive but currently are excluded from the scope of RoHS.

Paul Goodman, senior materials consultant with ERA Technology, Leatherhead, U.K., has just completed a comprehensive review of the RoHS Directive and its exclusions under Categories 8 (medical devices) and 9 for the European Commission (EC). He says most manufacturers he consulted for the review “know that Categories 8 and 9 will eventually be brought into scope and they are working towards making compliant products.” As for when they will fall under RoHS, he says the earliest this could happen would be 2010 — “because it’s physically impossible for the EC to make the changes before then” — and his recommendation to the Commission is “that it not be done before 2012.”

For industrial test and measurement equipment (a category that also includes control systems), however, he has recommended an even longer timeframe, out to 2016 or possibly 2018. His reasoning is based on the recognition that “manufacturers in this group typically produce a very large number of technically complex products and each is sold in relatively small numbers. Many of these products are safety critical and so require lengthy testing and approval by Notified Bodies after any modifications are made.”

So, given a possible 10-year breathing space, can control and instrumentation manufacturers rest easy for the moment about the impact of RoHS on their products? Goodman certainly sees no sign of that happening. “In my experience,” he says, “U.S. manufacturers have been working very hard. They are very much aware of the legislation and have been dealing with it, if anything, faster than some European manufacturers. They are way ahead of the game.”

Talking to some major players in the sector certainly supports that view. “I believe that product stewardship has been fully embraced by the control industry,” says Al Samson, product support director for Micro Motion, Boulder, Colo., a division of Emerson Process Management. “Most companies that I am aware of are not waiting to redesign products. The only advantage I see in waiting is hoping that the exemptions will be extended or a new solution surfaces. I would not be willing to gamble on either, so I would be working on design changes now.”

Taking a wider Emerson Process Management perspective is Aart Pruysen, Approval Director Europe, based in Veenendaal, the Netherlands. He advises all of the company’s worldwide design centers on European legislation. “We are quite busy with the RoHS Directive at the moment,” he says, “looking at alternative materials and, in particular, investigating their long-term stability. [Lead-free] solder is one of our main concerns, of course, because we would like to retain the same life cycle for our equipment. We take a proactive role. Our main goal is to be able to give the same quality to our customers as before — that’s why we started out very early on this investigation program, to be sure that we have good alternatives for all the hazardous substances.”

Sean Keeping, technology v-p for ABB Instrumentation, St. Neots, U.K., and Norwalk, Conn., paints a similar picture of actively working towards compliance with the directives. “At the moment, our products [in Category 9] are exempt but our new generation of instruments, coming through this year and next, are all designed to be RoHS and WEEE compliant,” he says. “The only exception to that is over lead-free solder on printed circuit boards. All components are lead-free but there are still some concerns about the reliability of lead-free solders in terms of ‘whiskering’ and their temperature characteristics. In safety critical conditions, we don’t feel comfortable — and I don’t think the industry feels comfortable — with using lead-free solders. In the meantime, we are doing a lot of investigative work and research into their reliability, to make sure that when we do have to comply by law we will be ready.”

Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee, Wis., is another manufacturer to have committed itself to compliance with both WEEE and RoHS. In a June letter to its customer base, two weeks before RoHS took effect, Sujeet Chand, senior v.p. and chief technical officer for advanced technology, said that all products that fall within the scope of RoHS would be fully compliant, and that the company’s long-term goal is to meet the RoHS material restrictions on products “even when compliance is not legally required.”

Underlying issues

Clearly, the momentum from control manufacturers towards compliance is gathering speed. And adding to that momentum are their own suppliers, many of whom also serve the consumer market and, so, have already put the necessary steps in place to ensure that they comply with RoHS. Emerson’s Pruysen says “our suppliers, of printed circuit boards for example, are changing over to [lead-free] RoHS-compliant components and asking us to do the same, because they don’t want to run two production lines. So we’re debating with them, too, about the reliability issues. Reducing life cycles is not an option for us and we have people looking at this full-time. We take it very seriously.”

Similarly, over at ABB Keeping notes, “we are also being lead by our suppliers to some extent, but we will gauge the time when we can really switch to complete compliance.”

Inevitably there are cost considerations associated with having to adapt designs to ensure compliance with environmental initiatives like RoHS and WEEE, but as Micro Motion’s Samson says, “the cost is mostly non-recurring, the effort of redesigning and implementing design changes. Some will be borne by the manufacturer and some will be passed on to the customer.”

To a certain degree, of course, this is all part of the price of good product stewardship, to be borne by all stakeholders during a product’s journey from “cradle to grave.” Given sufficient time — which now seems increasingly likely — control manufacturers are more than willing to play their part by designing environmentally sound products. “In ten years,” predicts Samson, “no one will notice that we ever went through this time of conversion based on new directives from Europe.”

As ABB’s Keeping says: “In the end, it’s just good practice. It isn’t that difficult so long as you take it into account from the outset.”

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