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China label law a sticky situation: green, blue, with or without an "e?" All that is known is there is a rule.

Effective March 1, China will require labels on products sold to end-users that contain any substances that can be considered to fall under any of the six RoHS classes. But two problems persist: what the labels will look like, and the particulars of how companies will comply. Of particular concern are the unknowns at play preventing companies from compliance.

"The law didn't specify what the labeling and disclosure requirements will be--just that there are labeling and disclosure requirements," explains Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates (designchainassociates.com), a consulting firm that has been closely tracking the issue.

"Companies need information about which components and subassemblies in their products contain more than the maximum concentration values of the six defined substances," Kirschner said in a phone interview with CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

But the compliance deadline looms in early spring, and preparations are difficult because of the abstract terminology and mutability in the multiple draft versions of the law, one of which--the final version--has not yet been released.

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One of the ambiguities is the term "environment-friendly use period," which is one of the marking standards that will need to be indicated in the labeling. The definition of this phrase is "the term during which toxic and hazardous substances or elements contained in electronic information products will not leak out or mutate," says Kirschner.

This is an irrational notion with no real way to calculate it, Kirschner points out. His hope is that there will be specific guidance on this concept by year-end; that is the goal of the different Chinese agencies and ministries making the decision.

The chairman of the ASTM International (astm.org) Committee on Declarable Substances in Materials agrees. "We all know that it cannot be quantified," wrote Tim McGrady in an email to the Internet mailing list TechNet. Based on discussions with China Ministry of Information Industry officials in Shanghai on Oct. 12, McGrady wrote, "They said it is a period during which the product will not leak or otherwise emit hazardous substances--in a sense, it's a guarantee by the producer. They said (and I paraphrase), 'Of course the product can still be used after the environment friendly period has ended--the user will not have a guarantee from the producer after the period has ended.'"

Proposed labels include an "e" mark to be used if a product doesn't contain any of the six toxic substances and is optional for standard-meeting products (Figure 1). This mark hasn't changed since its inception. However, the required numbered label (which differs from the "e" label and shows the environment-friendly use period) continues to be adjusted.

The final decision about what the labels should look like is anticipated with immense apprehension. "The colors of the labels are open to question," Kirschner reports. This is one of the biggest problems. "Will China specify the colors?" he questions. "Did they change their mind?" In the latest version of the standard, China specifies colors, which wasn't done in earlier versions.

The significance of this is disputed by McGrady, who says, "The color of the labels is not important--that the "e" and environment friendly period label could be any color, not just the green or orange-red that has so far been published." Wrote McGrady on TechNet, "They said directly that the color is not important and they could be any color." But Kirschner declares, "The reality is that black and white must be an option; [companies] already make black and white labels. This could be a huge problem if they have to change to color."

Nevertheless, despite the ambiguities of the colors, not to mention China's notoriously fickle approach to setting rules, there is agreement that China is not going back on the labels. "It's a done deal," Kirschner emphasizes. "This is a law in China that has been promulgated."

Kirschner believes the industry needs to stop taking a reactive stance and merely understand the trajectory of the situation to be able to preempt it. The problem, he says, is that so far, the industry has been actively ignoring the situation and not seeing the competitive advantage it can have. "If we focus on the environmental implications, these parameters can change that, but we have to approach it the right way. We have to make it clear that we can incorporate environmental properties and compete on those properties.

"The industry has an opportunity. Whether they take it or not, I don't know," Kirschner says. In the coming months, we will surely find out.

Chelsey Drysdale is associate editor of CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY; cdrysdale@upmediagroup.com.

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Title Annotation:Global Sourcing
Author:Drysdale, Chelsey
Publication:Circuits Assembly
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Words:761
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