MAC: Mines and Communities

EU lead ban hits hi-tech firms

Published by MAC on 2005-02-07

EU lead ban hits hi-tech firms

07 February 2005

By Reuben Schwarz

New Zealand's electronics exporters are spending millions of dollars to meet proposed EU environmental rules that ban imports of equipment containing hazardous metals.

The Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive means electronics companies keen to sell into Europe are forced to remove common alloys from their equipment. It's meant to stop hazardous metals from contaminating groundwater, and the changes won't come cheap.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the Canterbury Development Corporation, and manufacturers' group Electronic South are clubbing together to prepare exporters for the rules.

"There haven't been any regulations like this banning these things from electronics before," says consultant and project leader Roland Sommer. "It's a very big ask for the electronics industry."

The regulations cover lead, mercury, cadmium, a type of chromium, and two common flame retardants. The provision against lead will likely cause the most headaches because the metal is commonly used to make solder.

The EU rules will come into force in July 2006 if they are approved by the member states. The accompanying Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, if passed at the same time, will make manufacturers responsible for recycling what they sell.

They are stricter than those used in New Zealand. Mr Sommer says Canada, Brazil and China are considering similar regulations.

Gary Foot, director of Christchurch power switch manufacturer Enatel, says his 50-employee company is just the right size to cope with the new regulations.

With only one solder machine and about 5000 items to replace, Mr Foot estimates his costs at close to $250,000. He says smaller companies may have trouble affording the $150,000 price tag of a lead-free solder machine.

"Lead is a nasty product and it has got to be dealt with, and we need to get rid of those sorts of chemicals," he says. "But I think the speed at which it's occurring is too fast."

Lead lowers the melting point of tin solder, so using lead-free solder means new solder machines, titanium instead of stainless steel baths, and sturdier plastic casings to handle the higher temperature.

Enatel plans to be lead-free by 2006.

For Christchurch radio equipment exporter Tait Electronics, which employs 900 staff, the directive may mean some very expensive shifts in the manufacturing processes.

Tait's metal casings are often coated with zinc, which is strengthened with a dose of the banned chromium alloy.

Manufacturing technology leader Robert Hills says a ban on this chromium will mean a switch to more expensive materials such as stainless steel.

"We're finding it very difficult to find a solution for it."

Tait has already spent $1.5 million researching lead-free solder.

About half of Tait's exports go to the EU.

Mr Hills says while many newer raw materials comply with the EU's proposed rules, some suppliers won't or can't change to meet them.

Because of this, he says it won't be possible to make some of Tait's older products compliant. If the rules create stiff penalties, Tait will consider not exporting these products to the EU.

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