Electronics firms slowly shifting on substitution

Electronics companies are starting to respond to pressure to reduce their use of chemicals that are known to be hazardous to human health, the environment or both.

The industry’s slow steps away from damaging chemicals follows increasing recognition that electronics manufacture is causing cancer and other serious health effects in exposed production workers all the way along the supply chain. And the harmful impact goes further, with much of the discarded electronic waste illegally exported for typically hazardous recycling or disposal.

In an indepth feature published on the environmental news website Ensia, journalist Rachel Cernansky notes that to eliminate certain chemicals, electronics companies need to know if and where they’re using them in the first place. But modern supply chains have become so long and complex that many electronics companies don’t actually know which substances are in all the parts they use in their products.

High profile campaigns have put the electronics industry’s health and safety abuses, cancer clusters and pollution in the public eye. They have also been a driver of improvements in both knowledge about what is used in manufacturing products and recognition of the case for using safer alternatives.

“If you solve a problem at the upstream stage – if it’s designed in a proper way, if the hazardous components are replaced by less or non-hazardous ones – the problem downstream will be less,” said Tadesse Amera, a steering committee member of IPEN, a global network focused on safer use of chemicals. She told Cernansky: “We are not talking about waste. We are talking about the whole process.”

Joel Tickner, director of the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, a project based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said: “There’s been a lot of writing about toxicity in the electronics supply chain. I think what’s new is global collaboration, stronger focus on purchasing, collaboration among electronics companies really starting to dig into their supply chains.”

Cernansky reports that Ted Smith, coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology, has been talking with major companies such as Apple and Seagate to increase their access to such information. Seagate, he says, has come a long way. “They’ve been able to get all their suppliers to disclose all of their chemicals, and they’ve got thousands of suppliers around the world. It’s not an insignificant task,” Smith told her.

Tools like Substitution Support Portal and GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals increasingly provide practical advice on the move from hazardous to less hazardous substances and processes.


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