Smart view of where we stand

18 October 2008

NIgel Burtt

EM&T asked the SMART Group to give a view on a key industry topic at the moment. Nigel Burtt took the stand on environmental issues.

Imagine even just ten years ago how strange it would have been to find almost every edition of any of the electronics industry press carrying at least one story concerning the international politics of environmental regulations in amongst all the usual content of technical articles and trade press releases. However, this is now the norm and inescapably representative of the truly global nature of our industry.

If you grew up, like I did, with an engineer as a father, we would always try to fix broken appliances first, and there still were specialist shops that sold components that allowed you to mend it yourself, if you were able to diagnose the problem, or others which offered an economic repair service if not. Today, though it often pains me to do so, even if repair is possible, it is usually both cheaper and easier to buy a replacement, often with better features (knowing only that if you are lucky enough to pick one which survives past its warranty period you have bought a good one!)

When you take a trip to your local recycling centre with your garden refuse and suchlike and have a peak at the container for discarded domestic electrical and electronic appliances and it is glaringly obvious why politicians have had to take action. This no-one would dispute. What we find difficult to accept is the dogmatic application of regulations which, amongst many other criticisms, appear ill-thought out, overly bureaucratic and with a disproportionately unfair burden on the small scale end of our industry.

Part of the problem is that we were too slow to react when it became apparent that something would have to be done. More concerted early efforts to self-regulate and to engage with politicians and campaigning organisations demanding action would have tempered the laws we now have to deal with, but unfortunately the industry woke up too late to what would be imposed upon it.

Campaigns such as John Burke’s RoHS-Pushback (www.rohsusa.com), which has been running for some time to argue that restricting lead in solder has done more harm than good, and more recently REACHforLIFE (www.reachforlife.eu), formed initially in response to the repealing of the Deca-BDE exemption in the RoHS Directive, are laudable and well-intentioned but are ultimately reactive not proactive and can be both misinterpreted and misrepresented by some as “anti-green.” What they both seek, however, is an application of scientific reasoning to the solution of the problem, and in fact, who better than engineers to provide that solution? Certainly they are better placed to do so than politicians and financiers.

The author sits on the SMART Group’s technical committee.


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