Environmental aspects changing markets

Regulations and markets require environmental standardization

By Morand Fachot

More attention than ever before is being given to the overall environmental impact of industrial goods throughout their whole life cycle: from raw material acquisition to the manufacture, distribution, use, maintenance, re-use and eventual recycling of their component parts. In 2004 the IEC set up TC (Technical Committee) 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems, to develop standards in the domain.

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Environmental concern may act as brake on global trade

RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive) and WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) in the European Union, Energy Star in the US and the Top Runnerprogramme in Japan are just a few examples of environmental regulations aimed at restricting the use of hazardous materials in the manufacture of EE (electronic and electrical) equipment, and – in some cases – at improving energy efficiency. Most are implemented regionally and represent obstacles for global businesses seeking to sell their goods in world markets.

TC 111 works on environmental standardization that will contribute to the harmonization of market and regulatory requirements around the world at the technological level. It is aiming to help businesses develop environmentally-conscious products that are acceptable in a greater number of markets.

Focus on EE products

In the 1970s, awareness of local contamination of water, air and land resources was progressively seeping into the consciousness of many countries. The main efforts to prevent this were focused on improving operations in local manufacturing facilities.

Following the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development), environmental concern shifted to issues like GHG (greenhouse gases) emission, the loss of biodiversity, resource depletion and hazardous chemical pollution at the global level. As a result, concern about pollution from the distribution of industrial goods around the world took precedence over that caused by local production sites.

Since then, the specific attributes of EE products have been attracting more attention than others, as their production requires chemical compounds, rare metals and a lot of energy. Many countries have introduced measures to cut the potential environmental impact of EE goods production.

In other words, the electrotechnical industry has been expected to take a leading role in adopting a more environmentally conscious approach. Focus shifted to the entire life-cycle of products in the 2000s.

Shifting pollution by shifting production

Many factors may affect production of industrial goods. One is "carbon leakage". If a country introduces stringent restrictions on electricity consumption to cut CO2 emission from power stations, businesses may decide to transfer their manufacturing operations to another country in which there are more flexible rules. While this will result in lower CO2 emissions in the first country, it may cause higher ones on a global scale.

An effective strategy to solve such problems is to introduce a life-cycle approach. The concepts of carbon footprint of a product, or so-called "Scope 3 GHG" emissions of a company, take into account all GHG emissions throughout the entire value chain of a product or of a company. The life-cycle approach can be also applied to other environmental aspects such as resource depletion and biodiversity loss.

Worldwide harmonization throughout supply chains

The EE industry is global. Any single product can be sold anywhere in the world. Moreover, the supply chain is likely to be so long that it will include multiple countries and regions. Even for meeting environmental performance criteria in a specific region of a particular product, the implementation of a common standard by the relevant actors in the global supply chain is crucial.

The introduction of the RoHS Directive, which bans the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic products sold in Europe, led to vastly increased official paperwork in many countries, starting in the early 2000s. Manufacturers had to ensure the compliance of their components, even when they involved tiny proportions of the materials supplied by various manufacturers around the world.

In addition, customers' demands for environmental compatibility are increasing worldwide. Some consumer and governmental organizations, retailers and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) request that manufacturers guarantee compliance of the goods they produce with their environmental requirements. These bodies also welcome the publication of international standards they can apply to formulate their own criteria.

The three major international standardization organizations have their own technical committees – or equivalent – dedicated to environmental issues. ISO (International Organization for Standardization) set up TC 207: Environmental Management, and ITU-T (the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector) established SG (Study Group) 5: Environment and climate change. IEC TC 111 deals with generic aspects of environmental issues applicable to all electrotechnical products. This entails close cooperation and liaison with various ISO and ITU TCs and other organizations such as ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association).

Wide range of issues

The basic environmental issues currently addressed by TC 111 are climate change, resource efficiency and ecosystem conservation. They drive specific agendas such as eco-design, energy and GHG, material efficiency, environmentally-conscious design, chemicals management and GHG footprint/reduction. 

Most of the deliverables published by TC 111 have the status of "horizontal standard". They contribute to the development of product publications by other TCs, which incorporate relevant parts of TC 111 standards into their own publications when these deal with environmental issues.

Managing chemicals

Addressing the area of chemicals management, TC 111 has published IEC 62474Material declaration for products of and for the electrotechnical industry (see article in e-tech May 2012),IEC 62321Electrotechnical products - Determination of levels of six regulated substances, andIEC/TR 62476Guidance for evaluation of product with respect to substance-use restrictions in electrical and electronic products.

These standards are useful for both manufacturers and authorities. For example, IEC 62321 is to be referenced by the EU authorities in implementing the RoHS Directive. IEC 62474 is expected to contribute to reducing administrative complexity for actors within large global supply chains. This should ensure compliance with substance regulations or voluntary initiatives in many countries and regions.

Environmentally conscious design

A number of activities relevant to environmentally conscious design have been carried out or are under way. Following the publication of IEC 62430Environmentally conscious design for electrical and electronic products, which defines basic principles, TC 111 started work on developing guidelines for recyclability rate calculation and information provision.

TC 111 will address the issue of resource efficiency. This is widely recognized as representing the next major challenge after climate change, as is demonstrated by the current debate around "rare earths" supply bottlenecks. The possibility of further design work in terms of improving resource efficiency is under discussion right now.

GHG footprint

In the field of GHG emission and reduction, international concern is focused on GHG emission during the life cycle of a product (or supply-chain), or its "product carbon footprint".

The GHG Protocol Initiative, the international accounting tool used to understand, quantify, and manage GHG emissions, published its Product Life Cycle and Corporate Value Chain Standards in 2011, while ISO TC 207 is working on the development of ISO 14067 which deals with the same issue.

In view of the existence of such active and parallel moves in multiple areas, TC 111 has identified this agenda as important for the EE sector. It started development of IEC/TR 62725: Quantification methodology of greenhouse gas emissions for electrical and electronic products and systems, to provide guidance to the electrotechnical industry. IEC/TR 62725 is expected to be applied in the pilot test project on the carbon footprint of the ICT industry being carried out by the EU Commission this year. It is also expected to attract the attention of authorities in other countries.

TC 111 central in dealing with standards proliferation

Rapidly growing market needs for environmental standardization have triggered a proliferation of new activities. "Environmental protection and recycling of ICT equipment/facilities" in ITU-T SG 5 covers the subject of materials declaration with a focus on rare earth elements, which needs to harmonize with IEC 62474 and IEC TR 62635: End of life recyclability calculation for electrical and electronic equipment. IEC TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, set upTA (Technical Area) 13 to "deal with environmental issues". ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1 created JTC 1/SC 39: Sustainability for and by Information Technology, which needs to cooperate closely with TC 111 and other standardization organizations in order to avoid overlapping.

Such trends are indicative of the high level of expectation surrounding the central role that may be played by TC 111 in the world’s environmental domain. By delivering useful guidelines and standards, including technical reports, TC 111 will contribute to the improvement of global environmental issues.

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