Getting the Lead Out (2/9)
But the ever-growing mountain of discarded cell phones, computers, TVs, MP3 players and other equipment is no joke.
According to the EPA, the U.S. alone produces more than two million tons of e-waste a year, and 90 percent of it ends up in landfills, where it can potentially leach toxins into groundwater or emit carcinogens when burned.
Tough legislation scheduled to take effect in Europe this July could help dramatically curb the problem. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, or RoHS, as the mandate is known, will force companies to eliminate nearly all of the hazardous substances - including lead, mercury, cadmium and two forms of flame retardant - found in new electronics manufactured or sold in the European Union.
The directive is also expected to have serious implications for the rest of the world, since most manufacturers and suppliers will make their entire product lines RoHS-compliant, instead of producing a "clean" version for Europe and a "dirty" version for everyone else.
"My example is: We used to make plain white vanilla cake,"says Ray Moskaluk, the RoHS-compliance program manager for Hewlett Packard. "And we all had the same recipe. Now we're going to make carrot cake. Carrot cake is still cake, but it's a different recipe. And that's requiring us to learn and understand."
The biggest challenge in the transition, industry experts agree, will be weaning the companies off lead.
Tin-lead alloy, the industry standard for soldering, is prized for its relatively low melting point of 361 degrees Fahrenheit (183 degrees Celsius.) The higher melting point in many alternative alloys - 63 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius) higher in the case of the tin-silver-copper mixture that many companies will switch to -- creates challenges in the manufacturing process. For one, the increased temperature could damage boards and other components. And a number of the alternative alloys possess poor "wetting" - a measure of how well a liquid solder will attach itself to a surface. Perhaps the biggest unknown in the lead-removal process is the danger of so-called tin whiskers.
The subject of much debate and little consensus, tin whiskers are tiny, spontaneous growths that can sprout from surface finishes and cause electrical shorts. In the past, the tin was mixed with lead to prevent the whiskers.
The lack of a suitable alternative to lead is one reason the RoHS directive is loaded with exemptions for industries, such as aviation and the military, which cannot risk potential failure from technologies that have not been proven in the long-term.
So what does all this mean for consumers?
Most companies say their toxin-free products will look and act the same as their lead-laden counterparts. And despite the fact that the mandate will require RoHS compliance along the entire supply chain, at considerable cost to manufacturers (Intel has reportedly spent $100 million on the problem), companies insist that prices will remain unchanged.