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Europe Pushes Tech Into Detox

The EU is banning six hazardous substances in electronics, aiding the ecology but requiring challenging adjustments by firms everywhere.

April 22, 2006|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

Gerald Barker is in the business of making people feel better -- not harming them.

His company, Coherent Inc., makes sophisticated machines that produce high-performance lasers. The light beams are used to perform glaucoma surgery and to produce stents that are implanted in arteries to ward off heart attacks, among other applications.

But some of the 50,000 materials used to manufacture its products contained minute amounts of six hazardous substances, such as lead and mercury. So for two years, Barker has been eliminating the harmful components. He has replaced the lead solder in the circuit boards, jettisoned offending plastic insulation and even found less toxic paint for the company logo.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company wants to ensure that it can keep exporting its high-end laser technology to European Union nations after July 1, when governments begin barring the sale of electronic products containing more than traces of the six banned substances. The pending regulations affect everything from computers and cellphones to automated teller machines and toy trains.

Coherent, whose annual sales total more than $500 million, has spent millions of dollars working with its suppliers to identify the substances, locate environmentally friendly substitutes and redesign and test its modified products.

Barker, Coherent's vice president of environmental initiatives, isn't convinced that Europe's rules will make the world a lot safer, pointing out that the electronics industry accounts for just 2% of the world's lead. But with 28% of his firm's sales in Europe, he can't risk running afoul of the new law.

"The EU has grabbed the green jersey, and they are in the lead," said Barker, whose firm increased its research budget this year to handle the new requirements. "Everybody is going to need to fall into line."

By leveraging its clout as the world's largest market, the 25-country EU has triggered a global shift toward green manufacturing that is expected to cost manufacturers billions of dollars. Proponents say the requirements will lead to fewer toxic landfills and safer water and food. The EU is also in the process of adopting mandatory recycling programs for the electronic and electrical products covered by the hazardous substances law.

Other governments are following suit, eager to boost their environmental credentials and worried about becoming dumping grounds for products that can't be sold in Europe.

China, which some call the world's workshop, has said it will impose its own version of Europe's hazardous substances standards next year. And though the Bush administration has refused to join in, a number of states, including California, are imposing similar measures.

The state's hazardous substances ban, which was passed in 2003 and will take effect in January, does not include flame retardants and applies to fewer devices, such as cathode-ray tubes, computers and televisions.

Electronic waste has become a serious problem, particularly in rapidly developing countries such as China with weak environmental protection. The substances on the European hit list -- lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (the latter two are flame retardants) -- have been linked to a variety of health problems.

In the U.S, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 220 million tons of electronic waste are discarded every year, with massive loads of lead and other heavy metals dumped into landfills.

John Frey, manager of environmental strategies at Hewlett-Packard Co., said the European regulation was fast becoming a de facto global standard. That is why his company and many others are bringing all of their products into compliance, not just those heading for Europe.

As their biggest customers shift gears, suppliers of commodities from steel to microcircuits to paint have been forced to come up with safer versions of substances that have been used in manufacturing for decades.

Hewlett-Packard, an industry leader in environmentally friendly methods, even revised its recycled plastics program because it used ground-up inkjet cartridges and plastic bottles that sometimes contained banned substances.

"This has caused unprecedented turmoil in the electronics industry supply chain," said Bijan Dastmalchi, president of Symphony Consulting of Sunnyvale, Calif., which works with high-tech companies.

Dastmalchi and other manufacturing experts said many U.S. electronics firms, particularly small operations involved in customized work, are unprepared for the global reforms. They predict that there will be delayed shipments and price surges in the coming months resulting from last-minute discoveries of hazardous substances or shortages of the new, approved versions of steel plating and other commonly used materials.

Companies may also find it harder to sell products or components that don't meet the European standards.

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