E.U.: Prove your product isn't poison

The European Union's fiendish plan to strangle the industrial revolution

Published August 3, 2006 5:59PM (EDT)

The lead story in this week's Packaging Report from Semiconductor International bears the catchy title "The Nightmare After RoHS: REACH."

Oh, the horror. RoHS is the European Union's "Restriction on Hazardous Substances" directive, which came into effect in July, and bans the entry into the E.U. market of new electronic goods containing a slate of poisonous chemicals. But as if that wasn't bad enough for American semiconductor companies who chafe at any restriction on their right to export cutting-edge toxic brews around the world, here comes the E.U.'s next evil plan, REACH, which stands for "Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals." REACH has more than just the semiconductor industry nervous -- trading nations around the world are raising their voices in protest, from China to Brazil to South Africa.

REACH, if enacted in its current form, would be a profound demonstration of the E.U.'s "precautionary principle." It would require manufacturing companies to prove in advance that the chemicals in their products aren't dangerous, as well as publish previously tightly held toxicity data on the REACH Web site.

From the point of view of public health, sustainable development, and all-around civilized living, REACH could be seen as just the latest in a sequence of European Union efforts to use its large market as a lever to force environmentally responsible behavior on the world's manufacturing industries. Another recent landmark effort along these lines was the E.U.'s WEEE -- the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, which requires producers of electronic equipment to properly recycle their products at the end of their life cycle.

But from the point of view of editors of semiconductor trade magazines, the new rules are a "nightmare" and a "headache" -- sure to raise costs for everyone in the industry. Or maybe as Peter Singer, editor of Semiconductor International, sarcastically suggests in his teaser for the story, "It's all a grand plan to try to slow down the rest of the world so Europe can catch up."

The odd thing is that the story itself is hardly alarmist. For one thing, it quotes Dries D'Hooghe, the director of product strategy marketing at San Jose's Agile Software Corp., as saying, "With REACH, companies will bear the responsibility for the chemicals in their products and will have to know what the impact of those chemicals, whether they're cancerous or otherwise toxic."

What a chore! But even better, the story closes with a quote from one Mark Myles, services director at the Goodbye Chain Group, "a Concord, Mass.-based consulting company that help clients with environmental compliance issues."

"Myles believes the REACH legislation will become just one in a set of emerging legal initiatives that will cumulatively change how business is conducted and products are designed in the electronics industry. 'The biggest impact is not REACH or any one directive per se, but rather the cumulative impact of all of the extended producer responsibility laws that are pressuring many industries into a mindset to incorporate environmental factors into the design, manufacture and even marketing of products,' he said. 'This includes RoHS, WEEE and REACH, as well as other less-discussed directives like the EU Directive on Energy Using Products, the EU Integrated Product Policy and Japan's Framework for a Recycling Oriented Society.'"

Nightmare? Or a beacon of sanity in an otherwise deranged world? You make the call.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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