Environmental compliance within the mechanical engineering industry is governed by three main areas: the REACH, RoHS and WEEE directives. The WEEE restricts the amount of lead, mercury, Polybrominated flame retardants etc entering landfill, meaning they have to be recycled. However, the RoHS (Regulation of Hazardous Substances) act prohibits these substances being used for electronic or mechanical engineering processes in the UK and EU – so what happens to them?
The WEEE directive is concerned with the reuse, recovery and recycling of waste electrical/electronic products. The recycling of electronic waste is a highly complex process, involving machinery which is itself highly dependent on FPGA designers! Following initial sorting, specialist recycling plants separate the different factors of each component for reuse. The RoHS directive didn’t ban the use of lead, mercury etc in new technology, it merely set maximum limits. Admittedly, these are very low – but there are plenty of ways to reuse the lead from a lead-soldered FPGA design, without infringing environmental laws.
To get this in perspective, we must look at something widely used in mechanical design departments – fluorescent lights. At the end of their life, they these must be recycled safely, owing to the mercury they contain. The Mercury Recycling company in Manchester specialises in the recycling of fluorescent tubes, which are crushed, hammered, and separated. The glass is sent to a glass manufacturer and used in new products; it is also used as incinerator “slack.” The inert phosphorous is used for agricultural fertilisers or land-filled, as it is safe once the mercury is removed. The mercury itself, however, is used for lighting – a major use being in so-called environmentally friendly low energy light bulbs!
Similarly, the lead from lead solders and semiconductors is reused in batteries – which are then themselves recycled. There are also processes for removing the bromine from polybrominated plastics. This can then be used in various industrial applications, while the plastic component can be recycled into, for example, safety clothing and footwear.
However, there are concerns among environmental groups that the industrial processes required for technology recycling are themselves harmful to the environment, owing to the amount of energy they consume, and that re-use rather than recycling should be employed more. PCB and FPGA design is advancing in leaps and bounds, meaning products are often discarded well beyond the end of their useful life. Charities say unwanted technology hardware, such as computers, should be reused rather than broken down for recovery. Unwanted IT equipment could be a useful commodity in developing countries, for example in the schools and hospitals, with minimal risk to environmental compliance.
However there is another risk – that of data security. Recently, Plymouth City Council was fined £8,000 for a serious breach of environmental protocol, which saw unauthorised companies removing computers from its waste sites for resale. The WEEE directive states electronic items can only be handled by bona fide recycling companies. Not doing so places a risk of the products ending up as landfill, or the databases falling into the hands of criminals in places like Nigeria and Ghana.
Environmental compliance is a thorny issue. However, we at Enventure Technologies have a range of solutions to ensure your own needs are met, from compliant FPGA designs to data management.