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It is easy to point a finger at certain substances and say they are bad and should be eliminated. Sometimes, however, even more difficult than eliminating a substance is finding a replacement for it. Care must be taken to avoid replacing a “bad” substance with another that causes even more problems than its predecessor.
We must ensure that changes are science-based. When there is technical and/or ecological evidence of how the industry can better protect the environment, we should take the proactive approach of carefully evaluating alternative technologies to determine trade-offs between product functionality, environmental impact, reliability, safety, and cost. Stakeholders must be involved in this process.
“Halogen-free” or “low-halogen” is the latest green trend. iNEMI dislikes the use of the term halogen-free since it is misleading; it can imply a much broader scope than is warranted by the scientific evidence. Any environmental effort should have a clearly described scope that articulates the issue being evaluated. Although exposure to some halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) has been shown to be hazardous, it is far from clear that all HFRs share hazardous properties. In fact, exposure to tetrabromo bisphenol A (TBBPA) – the flame retardant that is reacted into the lacquer used to produce 95% of today’s PCB laminate – has been shown safe during the “use phase” of electronics by a comprehensive European Union (EU) risk assessment. However, the additive forms of TBBPA may indicate environmental impact and low-temperature incineration, i.e. burning, of PCBs made from this lacquer may produce toxic dioxins. Low-temperature incineration can occur during accidental fires but more commonly is part of improper recycling activities conducted primarily in developing countries.
Environmental groups have targeted HFRs, prompting several companies to construct target deadlines for removal of HFR, PVC, and even all halogenated compounds. To date, however, only polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and penta- and octa-polybrominated diphenyl ether (penta- and octa-PBDE) have been restricted by regulations.
While many OEMs have already committed to removing HFRs and PVCs, there is ongoing discussion regarding halogen’s exit from electronics. Many manufacturers are avoiding halogenated flame retardants due to increased regulatory scrutiny, and OEMs are demanding new products be either free of HFRs and PVC or entirely halogen-free. Seven of the top ten global PC manufacturers – representing more than 50% of worldwide market share – plan to phase out PVC where viable alternatives are identified. Similarly, many of these same OEMs are targeting HFR removal, based on viable alternatives.
It is difficult to affect industry-wide elimination of specific materials without deadlines of pending legislation. The infrastructure changes required are especially challenging, given that most companies are not vertically integrated. Widespread conversion requires consensus on solutions and requirements across the supply chain.
iNEMI has organized initiatives to help build such consensus. The first focuses on PVC alternatives, while the second addresses issues related to elimination of HFRs.
The PVC Alternatives Project is evaluating alternatives for PVC power cables to determine trade-offs between product functionality, environmental impact, reliability, safety, and cost. Participating members will conduct cradle-to-grave environmental lifecycle assessments (LCAs) comparing PVC and PVC-free compounds for U.S.-based detachable desktop power cord applications (cable, connectors, wire). They also will compare equivalent functional units that meet UL requirements and conduct performance testing to gain a better understanding of the electrical, mechanical, and safety aspects of PVC-free alternatives.
Many of iNEMI’s OEM members and their suppliers are assessing the feasibility of a broad conversion to HFR-free PCB materials. Significant technical questions remain. What electrical properties are needed to meet high-speed signaling requirements? With many HFR-free materials showing higher stiffness, what mechanical properties are needed to ensure system reliability isn’t degraded? Can design modifications reduce sensitivity to electrical and material properties?
iNEMI’s HFR-free PCB Leadership Program has established two working groups: one to address PCB materials and another to investigate signal integrity. This program is led by major OEM members of iNEMI: Dell, Cisco, HP, Huawei, Intel, and Lenovo. Other participants include ODMs, EMS providers, PCB shops, and laminate manufacturers. The program’s goal is to address supply chain, performance, and reliability to lead to a controlled conversion that minimizes risks. We encourage all firms in the supply chain to join this important industry effort.
Environmental programs should evaluate the entire lifecycle to determine if alternatives will lead to an improvement. By involving all segments of the supply chain in collaborative projects, we can provide a coordinated, balanced approach to infrastructure changes based on good science. SMT
Robert Pfahl, Ph.D., is VP of global operations for the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI). His environmental leadership within the electronics industry has earned recognition from the U.S. EPA, IEEE’s CPMT Society, and the Electronics Goes Green conference. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.