Four of the world's leading PC and mobile phone manufacturers have called on the European Union to ban industry-wide usage of two sets of dangerous chemicals by the end of 2015.
On Wednesday, Acer, Dell, HP and Sony Ericsson demanded that the EU impose bans, through the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, on the use of brominated flame retardants (BFR) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in consumer electronic products. The vendors have been joined in their demands by lobby groups ChemSec, Clean Production Action and the European Environmental Bureau.
"We believe the electronics industry has a responsibility to move proactively to find substitutes to replace BFR and PVC and are therefore calling on EU legislators to show leadership on this issue by voting to tighten the RoHS directive," said Sony Ericsson environmental specialist Daniel Paska in a statement.
Mats Pellbäck Scharp, head of corporate sustainability at Sony Ericsson, told ZDNet UK on Thursday: "What Sony Ericsson would like to see is a ban of BFR and PVC for consumer products and at least IT and telecom products such as computers, mobile phones, etc."
RoHS is an EU directive, adopted in 2003, that already bans the use of six hazardous materials, including lead, mercury and cadmium. The European Parliament is set to vote on the inclusion of BFR and PVC in an amendment to the RoHS directive, expected in early June.
ChemSec argues that BFR and PVC should be banned because when they are incinerated at the end of their life, they can produce pollutants and carcinogens. The organisation says this is particularly the case if the incineration process is poor, as happens in many developing countries where first-world electronic waste is often sent to be destroyed.
Technology vendors are currently at different stages of phasing out their use of BFR and PVC.
Sony Ericsson says it has entirely phased out PVC and most of its use of BFR. HP says it will have completed the phase-out of both sets of chemicals in its PC products in 2011, although it will take longer for many of its other products.
Some vendors have argued that they have been restricted in phasing out these chemicals because other companies in their supply chain have not done so.
In a paper detailing its position on RoHS, Acer said it was trying to phase out the use of BFR and PVC in what it called "a cost-effective manner".
"Although technologies were ready for a total phasing in of PVC/BFR-free models in 2009, most key component suppliers delayed... and extended their schedule," Acer said. "This market trend has interrupted Acer's commitments to phase in PVC/BFRs-free products. Acer believes that the revision of the RoHS Directive in a stricter manner is necessary."
Other vendors were not quite so positive. In a paper detailing its chemical use policy, Dell said the alternatives and the timescale for their availability needed to be clearly identified and that legislation needed to be harmonised across the world. Vendors face different RoHS legislation in Korea, China, Japan and the US, for example.
According to Pellbäck Scharp, the reason why BFR and PVC are used in most applications is that "the production techniques are old and reliable and the cost is very low". Newer materials are just as good or better and, as soon as the demand for these rises, the prices will drop, he said.
Pellbäck Scharp added that there should be no effect on the technology from removing BFR and PVC. "In most cases there are no effects for normal consumer products," he said. However, he warned there may be implications for the removal of the chemicals from servers. "That is why we are placing our emphasis on consumer products," he said.