Why 'greener' computing is coming soon to Europe

(historical note: this is an article I wrote for IT Manager’s Journal, which published it at the URL http://management.itmanagersjournal.com/management/04/12/07/2312226.shtml?tid=84 on December 14, 2004. When I rediscovered the original text on my hard drive, on December 29, 2013, I put it back here with the original date as reference, since that whole website was closed years ago)

The Member States of the European Union are getting ready to follow two directives that will have a deep impact on all the electronic industry. The first one places restrictions on (the use of certain) hazardous substances (RoHS) in the production of electrical and electronic equipment. The second fixes stringent rules on how to deal with waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Together, the two directives are meant to sensibly reduce the pollution and social costs of all such devices, from factory to landfill.

Environment friendly design

RoHS requires that, with some exceptions, new electrical and electronic equipments (EEE) put on the market after July 1st 2006 in the European Union does not contain lead, cadmium, mercury and a few others oddly named chemicals. A good, non too technical explanation of the dirty details is available on the Pb-Free website. Military equipment is excluded, as well as some classes of spare parts. Non compliant servers and some telecom network equipment will be tolerated for three or four years more. This doesn’t impact just European industries, but everybody who wants to sell EEE in Europe. Apart from that, even markets not already following similar rules, like China, are preparing to follow suit. Note again that I wrote “put on the market”, not “produced”. In other words, even EEE designs which have been already started, but will not reach the market before that date, will have to comply. To get an idea of how many stones will be turned, look at the Stakeholder Consultation: a short list of just the American companies involved would start with IBM, Motorola and Texas Instruments. Another way to understand the size of the problem is the official EEE definition: all devices “dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields…for use with a voltage rating not exceeding 1000 volts for alternating current and 1500 volts for direct current”. That covers everything from household appliances to soda machines, toys, hardware tools and all IT and telecommunications equipment, from mainframes to your cell phone and TV.

No more hi-tech dumps

While RoHS will regulate production, WEEE will cover the other half of the picture. This second set of rules aims to reduce the amount of EEE materials which reach landfills. In a nutshell, RoHS will force produces to minimize the amount of future waste to be managed, WEEE to pay for end of life costs. Industries will have to set up and finance proper procedures for EEE phase out, collection and recycling. The information on how to dispose of each product will have to be made public within one year from its appearance on the market. New labels and information campaigns should inform end users of their responsibilities. It won’t be possible anymore to dump such products like ordinary household waste: they will have to be left to dedicated “collection facilities”. The WEEE home page also links to the official summary of all relevant EU legislation.

A new recycling industry

Many big players are not just accepting the new laws, they are already, more or less eagerly, preparing to take advantage of them. Good will? Not exactly. Apart from looking terribly cool and future proof on any brochure, recycling some millions tons of WEEE every year is just doomed to become a huge business. The manufacturers could manage not just the disposal of their own discarded products, but also those from third parties. Several metals and other substances could be directly shipped back to the assembly lines. Of course, recycling can never be as eco-friendly as reuse, so all this could be a good occasion to spread Free and Open Source Software. More exactly, my personal hope is that at least some of these facilities will tear whole computers apart only if they are really broken and unusable. In all other cases, it could become possible to do on an industrial scale what today is almost exclusively a task for more or less isolated volunteers: resuscitate obsolete PCs with the right Free Software for the advantage of cash-strapped schools and NGOs.

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