US network targets solvent and adhesive alternatives in electronics

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This article originally appeared in Chemical Watch, on July 10, 2017

Industry, labour, NGOs unite on zero toxic exposure of workers

29 June 2017 / Alternatives assessment & substitution, Electrical & electronics, United States

Products - Circuit board FCM© ihor_b - Fotolia.com

Several pilot projects are underway to test alternatives to solvents and bonding adhesives commonly used in electronics manufacturing, according to director of Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN) Sarah O'Brien, less than a year after its first meeting. 

It is too early to break confidentiality by naming specific chemicals, Ms O'Brien said, "but you can guess what some of them are". She said they were chosen because they are some of the most dangerous and members believe alternatives are in reach.

"Over the past five years, there have been a lot of investigations of working conditions and toxic exposure, so we know what some of the big issues are," she told Chemical Watch. "These are also some of the chemicals most widely in use, so we can get a big bang for the buck."

The group was established in 2015 by Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions. The mission is to use stakeholder networks to "address sustainability problems in supply chains and complex systems".

It says workers in the industry are often exposed to toxic substances, such as n-hexane, especially in countries such as China, Mexico and Indonesia. Its members have agreed to move towards zero exposure in the electronics manufacturing process, and to develop four initiatives covering: safer substitutions; process chemical reporting; tracking and measuring exposure; and worker engagement and empowerment.

The network includes not only manufacturers - such as Apple, Hewlett Packard and Dell - but also NGOs and labour advocates and the EPA.

"We may make some recommendations in terms of protective equipment, but what we are looking for is limited exposure and finding substitutions," said Ms O’Brien.

The idea is to "build a consensus" and allow suppliers and manufacturers of finished products to change their practices, with less fear of being at a competitive disadvantage.

"If we can show that [new] substances are workable and meet the performance needs the customer is looking for, the supplier can have some confidence in trying something new," Ms O'Brien said.

"It's a high-volume, high-throughput industry and anything that disrupts that is a cause of anxiety."

Also, she said, no one company can make a truly meaningful change.

"One customer might ask for a change in their production line, but if you are in a facility with ten production lines and you ask for a change in one, they will keep using the cheaper, easier chemical [elsewhere] and the exposure profile doesn't change that much."

Once solutions "mature" to the point of being deemed successful, O'Brien said, the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition will take on a key role in "scaling up sector-wide".

At that point, she said, "when we are advocating for wider adoption, then we would be more public about what the substances are and what the plans are in addressing specific chemicals."

While the network's broad base, particularly the inclusion of labour organisations, is unusual, some electronics companies had already started moving toward cleaner production. For example, Apple's progress report, released in April, ranks the company’s prioritisation of substances "it intends to phase out". And industry group the EICC, a network member, has a chemicals management taskforce that promotes the use of safer chemicals.

Members of the CEPN include:

  • Apple;
  • Dell;
  • Fairphone;
  • HP;
  • Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition;
  • Flex;
  • Seagate Technologies;
  • Inventec Performance Chemicals;
  • CEREAL (El Centro de Reflexión y Acción Laboral);
  • Good World Solutions/Labor Link;
  • International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT);
  • Social Accountability International;
  • The Sustainability Consortium, Arizona State University;
  • University of California, Irvine;
  • University of Massachusetts Lowell;
  • Clean Production Action;
  • Green Electronics Council;
  • TCO Certified; and
  • US EPA.