Evolving Policies Reframe Discussion about Flame Retardants in Electronics

By Ajay Persaud, IPC EHS Fellow and Master of Public Health Student at The George Washington University

Policy makers in Europe and North America are eyeing a variety of changes to environmental, health and safety regulations to encourage a “circular economy” and reduce the risks of using flame retardants in electronics products.

That was the main theme of a recent IPC/Chemical Watch event in which experts discussed important policy developments around flame retardants used in the electronics industry from both European and North American perspectives. More than 270 people participated online. The panelists represented standards development (ECOS and IPC) and industry (electronics and chemicals production):

  • Adrian Beard, Head of Market Segments, Clariant Corporation;
  • Ioana Popescu, Senior Program Manager, ECOS;
  • Kelly Scanlon, Director of Environment, Health, Safety Policy and Research, IPC (Moderator); and
  • Joel Tenney, Director of Advocacy, ICL.

Here is a summary of the discussion:

What are the emerging policies affecting flame retardants used in electronics in North America and Europe?

In the European Union, policy makers are developing an eco-design framework for consumer electronics, as well as new regulations to remove halogenated flame retardants within stands and enclosures of electronic displays starting in March 2021. New regulations regarding halogenated flame retardants may be placed on other electronic products, as well.

Also in Europe, the Circular Plastic Alliance, an industry-based group is working to promote greater production and use of recycled plastics. While the recycling of flame-retardant-containing plastics may be feasible for the foreseeable future, challenges lie ahead in terms of regulating the chemical make-up of consumer electronic products. Previous measures aimed at reducing the use of halogenated flame retardants, such as an electronics tax enacted in Sweden, have had limited success and spurred a negative public response.

In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is evaluating a petition to evaluate the use of non-polymeric halogenated flame retardants in electronic casings, focusing on the potentially hazardous chemical endpoints that could be present. On the state level, Washington State recently announced it is assessing the potential risk that flame retardants pose to consumers. Similarly, on the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year launched a risk assessment of TBBPA and other flame retardants.

What are the industry standards that shape the definitions and descriptions of flame retardants used in electronics?

The representative from ECOS shared that basic flammability standards for electronics have not significantly changed, and the EU has not established any electronic product safety standards. Rather, flammability standards pertain more to product performance outcomes.

One important point was that there should be no health and safety compromise involved in meeting electronics safety standards by solely adding flame retardants. Instead, designers should consider fire safety standards while not compromising on the potential toxicological and environmental impacts that halogenated flame retardants may cause. The focus should be shifted from primarily utilizing flame retardants to meet safety standards to considering changes in materials choices, as well as performance-based approaches for electronics manufacturing.

Ideally, what data and information is needed to make better decisions about flame retardant chemicals and their use in electronics?

The ICL representative highlighted that industry decision-makers should shift their focus to consider the whole value chain rather than any particular components of electronic products. By utilizing new data tools that capture decision-making drivers, industry can improve their understanding of the value chain from a holistic viewpoint.

What innovations and technologies are needed to remove the need for flame retardants in electronics, or will we always need them?

Panelists stated that the conversation is moving away from the hazardous effects of flame retardants to focus more on the downstream impacts, such as recycling and reuse. In the context of the circular economy concept, industry must look at material streams from end-to-end if they are to increase the ability to recycle and reuse electronic components. Special attention must be placed on both conservation of electronic components and the reuse of materials through innovative methods such as label technologies so consumers and e-waste sites are better informed about what chemicals a product may contain and how it may be reused. Other environmental considerations such as a product’s carbon footprint are also coming to the fore.

How do you see the European Union’s Circular Economy Action Plan shaping future conversations about flame retardants used in electronics – and not just in the EU but elsewhere?

All panelists noted an ongoing, global shift in how we can use circularity to reframe discussions about chemicals and products. When considering how to recycle or reuse a product, a variety of specific choices and tradeoffs will have to be made. While a manufacturer may be able to increase a product’s recyclability, changes in materials or components may have to be implemented. In addition, the Circular Economy Action Plan will have to address not only the mechanical aspects of recycling but also the chemistry of recycling and reuse, given that consumer electronic products contain flame retardants, and the manufacturing processes can be energy-intensive. Innovative projects that enable circularization include markings on electronic products to indicate the presence of flame retardants as well as improving data and information sharing across the product value chain.

IPC will continue to collaborate with Chemical Watch to organize additional educational events on flame retardants in electronics. For more IPC information about this and other environment, health and safety topics, contact Kelly Scanlon, IPC’s director of EHS policy and research.

 

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