Chemical firms move to block shift to bromine-free PCs

Computer monitors which do not contain polybrominated flame retardants (PBFRs) are gaining a growing share of the European market, partly driven by eco-label schemes. Now, with entirely bromine-free personal computers on the cards thanks to a new circuit board material, PBFR producers have moved onto the offensive, claiming that eco-label criteria are unfair barriers to international trade.

PBFRs are a diverse group of compounds used to control the flammability of products such as electronic goods, textiles and foam furnishings. Concern about their environmental effects has centred on polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and tetra bromo bisphenol-A (TBBA). In 1986, German chemical companies voluntarily stopped producing PBDEs because of public concern that they produced dioxins in fires.

In 1995, Sweden called for a ban on PBBs and PBDEs after it found the compounds were accumulating in fish and fish eaters such as seals and sea eagles (ENDS Report 246, pp 35-37 ).

In Europe, three eco-label schemes - the Nordic White Swan, the German Blue Angel, and the TCO 95 scheme run by the Swedish office workers' trade union TCO - have criteria for PCs, photocopiers and printers. The schemes preclude all or some PBFRs from large components such as monitors and computer housings, but allow them in smaller parts, such as printed circuit boards, where alternatives are not widely available. The White Swan and Blue Angel have criteria for entire PCs, while TCO 95 can be awarded to a monitor, computer or keyboard, or the whole PC.

Of the three schemes, TCO 95 is the most successful for monitors, with 43 companies - including IBM, Dell, Sony and Hewlett-Packard - having the label for 239 products. According to Per-Erik Boivie, head of development at TCO, strong demand has come from Germany, the USA, Japan and Australia. The union accepts that "there is a considerable lack of knowledge concerning how these substances affect health and the environment," but says that in general, "many of the commonly available, commercially used brominated compounds...are accumulative in the biosphere."

Only one company, Ergonomic Office Systems (EOS), has a TCO 95 label for an entire PC. The Norwegian company is aiming to gain the label for all of its products, sold under the Tandberg brand name, by the end of 1997. According to its Ergonomics and Environment Manager, Are-Bjorn Pedersen, fewer than 20% of all monitors sold in Norway and Sweden currently have the TCO 95 label but "the market in Scandinavia is moving towards TCO 95 or similar products."

EOS sells very few products in the UK, "where price is the main issue". Most of its machines are sold in Germany to large commercial customers such as banks and insurers.

The White Swan and Blue Angel labels do not permit the use of PBDEs and PBBs but allow the use of TBBA. Five firms have received the Blue Angel - Dell, Compaq, Samsung, Siemens-Nixdorf and Cherry Mikroschalter. Two - Interaq and Siemens-Nixdorf - have the White Swan.

Some of the world's biggest computer manufacturers, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have banned the use of PBDEs and PBBs in their products. Hewlett-Packard monitor housings typically contain phosphorus-based flame retardants, and its computer casings have no flame retardants at all.

Engineering polymer producers such as Bayer, GE Plastics and Dow Chemical are continuing to defend the use of PBFRs, according to Hewlett-Packard's Product Steward for business PCs, Theo Dirksen. "I think the plastics industry is right that most PBFRs are not dangerous," he told ENDS, but "if public opinion is against them, we will take the appropriate marketing decision."

Like most large PC producers, Hewlett-Packard buys many of its components from original equipment manufacturers (OEM), many of whom are in the Far East. Here, competition is intense and buyers use many suppliers in their search for the lowest price. But Hewlett-Packard "tells them what we want and don't want in terms of environmental requirements," said Mr Dirksen. "If they can't meet the requirements, they must come and see us."

IBM gives its OEM suppliers, such as Samsung, a list of 11 banned PBDEs and PBBs but does not stipulate which flame retardants, if any, must be used instead and says it does not know which chemicals its suppliers are using. "Our suppliers refuse to say what they use," Environmental Projects Manager Steve Bushnell told ENDS. "To some extent, we have to take what they are prepared to make."

Dr Wichard Pump, Product Safety Manager for the plastics division of Bayer, a major producer of plastics for OEM manufacturers, told ENDS it is "no secret" what kind of flame retardants are used in the plastics used to make monitors. Bayer supplies an ABS/polycarbonate blend which contains flame retardants based on triphenyl phosphate or phosphate derivatives. Some manufacturers use internal metal "shields" to protect computer housings from internal sparks, and can therefore use non-flame retardant plastics.

TBBA, however, is used in the epoxy resin laminate which forms the basis of the circuit boards found in a host of electronic products, including PCs, by virtually all manufacturers. Recently, however, a phosphorus-based alternative has been developed by the German engineering giant, Siemens, with support from the German Research and Technology Ministry.

The laminate is manufactured under licence by Siemens-Nixdorf, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Siemens, and by the German chemical group Hoechst. Printed circuit boards containing the material are made by ATS, Fuba and Isola - which also produces the bare "prepreg" boards. According to Siemens, the new material meets all the requirements for printed circuit boards and can be processed without any need to modify established technologies.

Commercial production began last year but needs to reach 10,000 tonnes a year - a "significant increase" - before the price could drop from what Siemens claims is just 5-10% above the price of conventional resin. Other firms say that the material is twice as expensive, but this still represents a small fraction of the cost of a complete electronic device.

Siemens accepts that users are not prepared to accept higher material costs at the beginning of the production chain but believes several factors will enable the price to find "general acceptance". Its higher dimensional stability at elevated temperatures means less waste and repair during processing and may permit circuit boards to be thinner.

Furthermore, the production waste, which can amount to 30% of the final product's weight, can be recovered more easily because of the absence of halogens. The company is currently running trials to optimise recycling techniques.

All of the housings and keyboards manufactured by Siemens-Nixdorf are PBFR-free but the company does not plan to use Siemens' PBFR-free circuit board resin, according to Siemens' Environmental Products Manager, Dr Ferdinand Quella. This is because Siemens-Nixdorf buys in many components with a chip coating containing PBFRs. Until there is at least one company making PBFR-free chip coatings, and an entirely PBFR-free circuit board is possible, said Dr Quella, it will not be worth using the laminate because the boards will be no cheaper to recycle.

Last year, German electronics companies met to discuss the PBFR-free resin and, according to Dr Quella, decided that there should be a gradual switch to halogen-free products. But they do not want the Blue Angel criteria tightened to exclude PBFRs from circuit board laminate.

PBFR manufacturers are now fighting back by claiming that the eco-label criteria are a barrier to trade - an increasingly common pattern in eco-label disputes involving US firms. The European Brominated Flame Retardant Industry Panel has lodged a complaint with the European Commission. Among the major PBFR producers are three US firms - Albermarle, Great Lakes Chemicals and the US arm of Akzo Nobel - plus France's Elf Atochem and Israel's Dead Sea Bromine.

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