RoHS Exemptions: Buying Time for Innovation

RoHS Exemptions: Buying Time for Innovation

This piece was originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of electroindustry.

Manufacturers compete. Manufacturers innovate. And, generally speaking, manufacturers are constrained in these efforts by Standards, rules, and regulations.

The enactment in 2005 of the European Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (the RoHS Directive) was a watershed event in terms of one particular area of conformance—that of eco-design.

Accounting for the environmental impacts of materials, resources, and end-of-life scenarios at the front end of product design was not a new concept. But, under RoHS, manufacturers throughout the electro-product sector suddenly faced specific, enforceable limits on substances embodied deep within the components or embedded within surface areas of complex products. Meeting these limits became an “entry ticket” for manufacturers supplying products to the vast, multinational European market.

But what if the substance restricted by RoHS was critical to the safety and performance of the product? What if no substitute material existed that was deemed less hazardous and could meet the required technical specifications?

The remedy for this dilemma is provided by the RoHS exemption process, which allows the substance thresholds to be exceeded for distinct applications cited by the European Union administrative authorities. Lead content, for example, may exceed the RoHS threshold level of 0.1 percent (measured in so-called “homogeneous material”) in “high melting temperature type solders” contained in all products in the scope of the Directive, while mercury levels above the limit are allowed for various energy-efficient lighting products.

Exemptions from RoHS thresholds are temporary and many that were granted when the original RoHS Directive came into force have long since expired. The process allows for renewal, however, and stakeholders can petition for new exemptions to accommodate product changes and technological advances. The guidelines on how to apply, as well as the criteria that must be satisfied to earn and retain exemptions, are spelled out in the 2011 RoHS “Recast,” which modified and expanded the original Directive.

The current list of RoHS exemptions contains almost 400 entries, segregated along the product categories defined in the Directive. Those that haven’t expired are subject to renewal if stakeholders apply within 18 months of the designated expiry date. Thus, an exemption declared to be in effect until July 20, 2021, will be gone forever unless EU authorities receive an application to renew it before January 20, 2020.

Once that happens, the exemption remains active while European officials (and their contractors) conduct a thorough review, solicit publicinput, make their determination, and issue an official decision.

As NEMA and other industry stakeholders have learned, the RoHS exemption process  takes years and involves a complicated, uphill battle for manufacturers. The fact is that European policymakers are predisposed against exceptions to their framework for limiting hazardous chemicals in electro-products. They incorporated rigorous, highly technical criteria for justifying exemptions in the Directive that, while difficult to overcome, also provide continual motivation for manufacturers to innovate and pursue environmentally friendly solutions.

NEMA is currently assisting Members from various product Sections in seeking to renew an exemption to the RoHS threshold for cadmium in electrical contacts, used for switching off electrical current. Similar efforts are underway for other exemptions, which ultimately will disappear unless stakeholders can devise a persuasive, scientifically- based argument for keeping them in place.

Members seeking information on the RoHS exemption process or the status of a particular exemption can contact Mark Kohorst of NEMA Government Relations at Mar_Kohorst@nema.org. ei

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