Europe to tighten rules on toxic substances

New legislation to extend restrictions on hazardous materials to a wider range of electronics products has passed a first vote in European Parliament

European legislators have voted to extend the rules banning harzardous substances to a wider range of electrical and electronic products, but have stopped short of introducing a chemical ban backed by major technology vendors.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament approved a proposal to amend the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive by 640 votes to three, with 12 abstentions. The draft legislation aims to revise the directive to streamline it with other chemicals laws, such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (Reach).

"Today's vote will lead to a stronger law that is coherent with other pieces of legislation and easier to implement and enforce," environment commissioner Janez Potočnik said in a European Commission statement. "Environmental improvements will result from the inclusion of new product categories such as medical devices and monitoring instruments."

At the moment, the RoHS directive covers a large list of products, such as IT and telecommunications equipment, household appliances and consumer items such as televisions. Under the revised rules, all electrical and electronic equipment — unless subject to specific exclusion — will need to comply with the directive. The RoHS would range in scope from lab equipment to some talking teddy bears, but it would not apply to photovoltaic solar panels or military materials, for example.

Manufacturers will have eight years to comply with the expanded directive once it has passed, the European Commission said.

In June, Dell, Acer and Sony Ericsson and other electronics manufacturers called for two more chemicals — brominated flame retardants (BFR) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — to be placed on the list of substances banned under the RoHS. The draft legislation approved by the European Parliament on Wednesday did not add these or any other chemicals to the list. However, it did say that a review of the list should be carried out within three years, leaving the door open for additions.

ChemSec, a non-profit group working toward a toxic-free environment that supported the ban on PVC and BFR, said in a statement that the decision not to add new materials to the list was "disappointing", though it did welcome the inclusion of the review.

The revised directive will provide an easier method for amending the list of banned substances in the future, according to the European Commission, as well as streamlining the process for granting exemptions to manufacturers.

"The new rules have set a clear structure for deciding how and when a substitute should be banned and have highlighted some possible chemicals for a review," said Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans, who is guiding the legislation through parliament, in a statement on her website.