How environmental compliance impacts on mechanical engineering

Mechanical design depends heavily on electronic technology, which is involved in the manufacture of everything from computer terminals to truck engines. Environmental compliance rulings such as the new RoHS/WEEE regulations therefore impact heavily on mechanical engineering manufacturers, and those using their products.

The main concern is the increasing generation of electronic waste, or e-waste. Also known as waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), this describes all the surplus, broken or otherwise discarded electronic and electrical products which end up in landfill sites. The problem is not the components themselves, but the toxic materials they contain. Cathode ray tubes, for example, contain prohibitively high levels of lead and phosphorous, but are very difficult to recycle.

Although these are being phased out, the LCD screens replacing them bring their own problems – for example, the semiconductors and solders used in computer monitors and TV sets are often high in lead. Following the new WEEE, RoHS and REACH regulations, mechanical engineering companies now design systems using lead-free components and solders, but many older LCD screens (and, indeed, CRT tubes) are still in common use, yet to be consigned to history.

Although the new regulations are only in force in the EU, they have impacted on the rest of the world – for example the US, where e-waste recycling has become big business. There are now at least 23 states restricting the amount of electronic and electrical waste entering landfill sites. Both in the EU and the US, WEEE products must be carefully managed, with every item accounted for. This has led to big problems with EDM (enterprise data management) for some firms, who feel swamped by the amount of data processing they have to go through to meet environmental compliance criteria.

Mechanical design companies have to attack the problem from a number of angles. They must ensure their bill of materials does not include components which breach the RoHS rules; they must ensure the products they manufacture obey modern energy efficiency and REACH regulations, and they must ensure any waste products that result from the manufacturing or design process are disposed of in an environmentally aware manner. On top of this, stringent records must be kept to ensure they comply with local and government legislation.

There are now a number of mechanical design companies specifically targeting the recycling of waste electrical goods, much of which can be put to good use. Devising safe high-tech methods of separating hazardous from non-hazardous components, or of renovating components for reuse, has become a big money spinner, especially in Japan, which leads the world in recycling waste electronic goods. As far back as the 1990s, the Japanese government had initiated a formal sustainable development program based on the “three Rs” of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In 2005, representatives of the UK’s Mini-Waste Faraday Partnership went to Japan to study their WEEE recycling methods. The MWFP is one of 24 Faraday Partnerships jointly funded by the government and recycling councils. It was established to develop “improved contacts between industry and academia within the UK in the field of resource productivity and waste minimisation.”

If you need help getting a recycling patent off the ground, or just need help with your environmental compliance records, we at Enventure Technologies can help.

Leave a Comment