Caveat Collector
Mike Buetow
Circular Economy Regs Make My Head Spin

any “topical” conferences are not just good at answering questions, but they also open one’s eyes to questions that have yet to be resolved.

The ITI/IPC 2019 Conference on Emerging & Critical Environmental Product Requirements is a perfect example. The two organizations caravanned across the US in June, bringing scores of environmentally conscious engineers and compliance officers up to date on the latest REACH and related regulations in the EU, UK and Asia.

What distinguishes REACH from almost any chemical safety regulation I can think of – including RoHS – is parties need to prove the safety of a substance before it’s allowed on the market, and exemptions must be justified from both a risk point-of-view and a socio-economic point-of-view. Multiple independent technical committees, appointed by the Member States, make those assessments.

The latest efforts have lasered in on phthalates, also known as plasticizers. These chemicals are added to plastic to make it both stronger and more flexible, but perhaps are harmful to health. This would be an important addition to RoHS, as plastics are again under the public microscope for their near permanence and ubiquity in the environment. (Plastic bags were found this year by a manned sub at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.) A new environmental bill in the UK is working toward eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 and all avoidable waste by 2050. Estimates are 80% of the costs will be borne by producers. OEMs beware.

The one-day sessions gushed with the proverbial fire hydrant’s worth of information. While the EU in particular is seen as trying to shorten the evaluation process, registration of a substance is not the end of the process. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has a goal to increase compliance checks to 20% by 2027, from the current rate of 5%. If anything, scrutiny will intensify.

As an aside, if it feels like all the pressure on proving out substances is coming from outside the US, that’s because it is. In the current regulatory environment in the US, any attempt to phase out chemicals for almost any reason has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. One attendee remarked it is probably better the US does not have its own rules, unless they were harmonized with those of other regions.

Speaking of harmonization, nine Asian nations now have versions of WEEE or RoHS. China’s lead regulatory bodies, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), in May jointly issued the Implementation Measures for Conformity Assessment System, which stipulates conformity submissions are due within 30 days of a product’s introduction to the market. The submission, which goes to a public website, can involve either a voluntary certification or a supplier’s declaration of conformity. Come November, labels will be mandatory.

As is expected, goals and methods vary by nation. For instance, India seeks to reduce waste 10% per year, reaching a 70% decrease by 2024. Hong Kong has a disposal plan in effect, but as of June companies could only pay by check, not electronically.

All of this is part of the so-called circular economy. (For more on that, see the iNEMI article that starts on pg. 47.) Apropos, because my head was spinning with questions:

  • Is the current goal of REACH to eliminate use of a substance or to eliminate human contact with a substance?
  • Once a substance is on a list, is there any process for removing it? 
  • Should the US be involved in identifying and restricting chemicals of concern, or is it preferable to default to the EU? Which would be least disruptive to industry?
  • Is there a strategy for harmonization across the US, EU, UK, Asia, etc.? If not, should there be?
  • Are labels required for each end-product, or on every subsystem or component?
  • One enforcement and compliance expert offered an example of a 20-person company that hired an additional worker to help the company stay in compliance. Is it financially feasible for small businesses to add staff just for compliance? Would it be better to outsource that function, and, if so, where would a company turn to do so?

I truly feel for the poor souls who are trying to keep up with it all.

Mike Buetow
P.S. See you this month at PCB West ( at the Santa Clara Convention Center and SMTAI in Rosemont, IL (booth 1008).