Lax US regulation of electronic goods is causing devestating environmental consequences in China, and causing American homes to “be more dangerous than European homes” according to the chairman of the Hong Kong Electronics Industries Association, Professor KB Chan.
“Everybody is focusing on the toy issue,” he said. “But this is irrelevant – the child can be playing in the living room with a perfectly safe toy, yet in the kitchen is a washing machine with 1,000ppm lead in the paint,” he said.
Chan urged the US to strengthen regulations regarding the use of toxic chemicals in electronic products. He cited European regulations, calling the EU a world leader in this regard. For example, the EU’s REACH regulations require registration of any of 30,000 chemicals used in the manfacturing process. “When manufacturers can’t ship to the EU because of these stringent regulations, they ship to the US,” said Chan. A few firms, such as IBM, follow corporate social responsibility, he said, and produce the same product for all markets. “But many companies do not, as long as they don’t violate the law locally,” he said.
Aside to the dangers to American families, the lack of chemical controls is a pressing environmental issue in China. China manufactures 20% of electronics sold globally, and its share is growing at over 10% a year. “Very soon, China will make one in four electronic products,” said Chan.
“There are 100,000 factories [in the PRD]. The higher cost of labour and rent will see a gradual migration to Guanxi, Hunan – and [without import regulations], these factories will be bringing nasty things to other provinces. It will have a radiation effect.”
Aside from chemical awareness, Chan said the industry was facing the challenges of “cradle to cradle” life cycle development of new products, where distribution, usage, disposal and recycling were all factored into the reported energy efficiency of a product. “The US$1 trillion electronics industry creates 20 million tonnes of product a year, with an average shelf life of eight to 10 months,” said Chan, highlighting the scale of the problem. From this perspective, simply noting an electronic product has a high operating efficiency is irrelevant.