Environmental Directives Impact the U.S. Construction Market

May 1, 2008

Several environmental directives adapted over the last decade have made an impact on the construction market.

By Jon Melchin, CSI

As the world's population grows, there is increased demand for building designs and construction methods that create efficient, sustainable, high-performance structures that are aesthetically pleasing, safe, and environmentally responsible. Today's architects, engineers, and interior designers are striving to produce welcoming spaces that enhance buildings' ability to perform for occupants.

This includes an integrated approach to designing with the latest technologies and materials available while creating a structure that is functional, healthy, and safe for occupants and environmentally sound for the general public.

Interest in sustainable design has dramatically increased over the past decade and continues to grow—not only among designers but also among building owners, contractors, consumers, and governmental agencies. In the United States and worldwide, buildings are an enormous source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and there is growing concern about the negative impact they have on the environment.

Perhaps more significantly, the media attention drawn to environmental issues such as global warming and pollution has engaged both governmental entities and the public. The U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and other similar rating/certification systems have given specification guidelines for achieving "green" initiatives. The environmental, economic, and community health benefits of green building are clear and have been widely embraced for years. More than 25 cities and 20 states across the country have adopted regulations that require LEED certification for certain new builds.

Lowering effects on the environment, maximizing energy efficiency, and conserving natural resources are all major goals of LEED. In one category, Materials and Resources (MR) Credit 4, Recycled content, LEED allows up to two points for products that are made with pre- and post-consumer content. However, the rating system does not currently have a credit for specifying products that have reduced environmental impact during the manufacturing process or points for products that are easily recycled at the end of their useful lives. Although recycling has been mainstream for decades, these other attributes are still important aspects of sustainability.

A development making its way onto the environmentally conscious scene could help bring them to the forefront. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive was established by the 25-member European Union (EU) and went into effect in July 2006. (It is important to note that it is not a law but a rather very popular guideline.) Although for the most part it is still under the radar of many "green" enthusiasts in North America, RoHS could soon have substantial impact on the way products are selected for sustainable projects.

Details on the Directive
RoHS traces its beginning to 2003, when the European Union member states first adopted it. Research conducted by the EU's environmental collaborative in the late 1990s revealed that large amounts of hazardous waste were being dumped into landfills across Western Europe. Trends suggested the toxic waste stream would only escalate, creating a massive, growing source of contamination. This caused the EU to take measures to clamp down on these hazardous substances. This would lead directly to RoHS.

The directive drastically reduces the permitted amounts of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment, with the maximum concentration levels not to exceed 0.1 percent by weight per substance. The targeted substances include:

  • Lead and mercury—often found in electronic and electrical equipment
  • Cadmium—found in certain types of batteries and used in the production of electronic circuit boards
  • Hexavalent chromium—compounds exist in chromate pigments for dyes, paints, primers, and other decorative/protective coatings
  • Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)—used as flame retardants in some plastics
Electronic devices need to be RoHS compliant in certain markets.

Another recent EU environmental initiative is the directive of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), which took effect in August 2005. Similar in many respects to RoHS, it is designed to minimize the waste stream of electrical and electronic equipment by promoting the reuse, recycling, and other forms of recovery of such products instead of disposing of them. While WEEE focuses on end-of-life products, RoHS in contrast, restricts hazardous substances from being incorporated into the products beginning with the manufacturing process. Trends in electronics waste generation suggest increased technological change and decreasing chip costs are driving the development of new products along with the obsolescence rates of older ones. WEEE imposes the responsibility for the ecological disposal or reuse/refurbishment of such equipment on the manufacturer. (On this side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says most states and local municipalities participate in various similar "e-cycling" programs.)

Global Environmental Initiatives
At the end of February 2006, China instituted a law titled Administration on the Control of Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products. This has the same goal as the EU's RoHS; in fact, it is commonly known as "China RoHS." One of the similarities between the EU's directive and China's regulation is the list of substances that are restricted. However, China RoHS covers many additional products that are not covered by the EU, such as semiconductor and other large-scale manufacturing equipment, medical products, automotive electronics, production materials, components, and component materials. Japan and South Korea enacted similar regulations in 2007 to drive the recycling of a broad spectrum of goods and materials, including electronics. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay are considering legislation that would also require manufacturers and importers of electronics, batteries, and fluorescent and mercury lamps to take back and recycle the products at end of life. Canada, Australia, and Taiwan are following suit.

Audiovisual technologies are found in virtually every building.

Closer to home, the United States has not yet enacted any national RoHS or WEEE-type regulations, but individual states have begun introducing similar rules for their own jurisdictions. In addition to Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, RoHS-like restrictions have had significant impact in the state of California.

The California law (SB20/SB50) took effect in January 2007 and differs slightly from the EU directive. It applies to "covered electronic devices" such as televisions, laptops, cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, plasma screens, and DVD players with liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. Any display device with a diagonal screen size greater than 4 inches is included. The California law only restricts four out of the six substances singled out by the European RoHS: lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium.

California's RoHS law prohibits the sale of any electronic device that does not minimize the restricted substances to accepted levels. Years earlier, in September 2003, the Golden State adopted a WEEE-like initiative that regulated the end-of-life handling of some electronic components.

Electronic components are conveniently tucked away in wall boxes.

Additional Legislation
Another regulation, instituted by the EU in June 2007, has further expanded the effort for improved environmental quality. The European REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical substances) program takes RoHS a step further by requiring manufacturers and importers to gather information on the properties of the chemical substances incorporated in their products and register the information in a central database run by the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland. REACH also oversees an authorization system to ensure that substances of very high concern are properly accounted for and controlled. There is speculation and concern that this program, like RoHS, could spread toward global compliance as environmental issues continue to be exposed in the media spotlight.

Hazards within the Built Environment
Today's construction and retrofit projects use an evolving variety of new products that facilitate green design efforts and sustainability. Information technology, audiovisual, security, and multimedia communications systems are prevalent in virtually every building and are often considered vital to the performance of the built environment. These various components are selected and specified with occupational health, safety, and productivity in mind and are implemented into a design where people can thrive and building performance is achieved in the most environmentally responsible way possible.

As RoHS-like rules become more widespread in the United States, the impact of the directive can be of significant importance to building product manufacturers, especially those companies conducting global marketing. The RoHS directive includes the restriction of one or more of the six banned EU substances from the following product groups:

  • Large appliances (e.g. plasma screens, LCD panels, and CRT monitors)
  • Small household appliances (e.g. DVD and VHS players)
  • Information technology (IT) and telecommunications equipment
  • Consumer equipment
  • Lighting and lighting equipment
  • Electrical and electronic tools
  • Electric light bulbs and luminaries

Architects, engineers, and interior designers all routinely specify many of the above-referenced products when creating a space (especially learning centers, multimedia communication rooms, or other technology-rich environments). Personal, mainframe, and laptop computers, along with telephones, fax machines, copying equipment, video cameras, and various audiovisual and electronic signal processing equipment, fall into RoHS's categories.

Now that California is paving the way for these initiatives here in the States, the design community, building owners, developers, product manufacturers, and governmental agencies must acknowledge the European restriction's impact. With more states proposing variations of the directive, it will be challenging to keep up to speed with the changes and exceptions to the original regulation.

As mentioned, California's RoHS law focuses on covered electronic devices. However, the EU version applies to the larger category of "electrical and electronic equipment," which is defined, in part, as "equipment which is dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields in order to work properly, and equipment for the generation, transfer, and measurement of such currents and fields ..."

Tremendous amounts of toxic materials from these common electronic products are being dumped into landfills across this country and many others. In an effort to emphasize the ecological impact of these hazardous substances, the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (RSA), in conjunction with a major electronics manufacturer, created a 7-meter (23-foot)-tall sculpture of a head and torso made from 3.3t (3.7 tons) of electrical goods—the average amount of electrical waste one British citizen discards in a lifetime. The giant figure, known as WEEE Man, was erected on London's South Bank in 2005.

The WEEE Man, a 23-foot-tall sculpture of a head and torso made from 3.7 tons of electrical goods, represents the average amount of electrical waste one British citizen discards in a lifetime.

RoHS Compliance in Design and Technology
Found in virtually all buildings, products containing circuit boards and electronic components are profoundly impacted by RoHS and similar regulations. For example, environmental issues in the audiovisual industry are particularly broad. Just imagine the amount of batteries, large and small, found in various electronic goods that now under California's regulation alone need to be shipped to a state-licensed recycling center—simply discarding them is no longer an option.

Architects are embracing the convergence of design and technology, and the products selected and specified should be RoHS compliant. They should focus on designing for the future as well as the present. Technology-rich projects incorporating cutting-edge audiovisual systems such as videoconferencing systems, distance-learning classrooms, digital signage information networks, and multimedia communications all feature electronic products that, sooner or later, will need to comply with one RoHS variation or another.

Quite a few multidisciplinary architectural firms offer audiovisual consultation as well as planning, interiors, landscape, and other aspects of design. Says a member of one,* "While our involvement has been minimal on the audiovisual front overseas, where RoHS has had the biggest impact, we have not felt much of its influence here to date. However, given its recent adoption in California, we fully expect to be dealing with this domestically in the immediate future and have been watching developments with a critical eye."

Today's specifiers (and their clients) are focused on designing sustainable, high-performance structures with long-term lifecycles in mind. Green initiatives in new builds, along with the environmental impact of the growing construction business, mean a variety of ecological solutions should be embraced by the design/construction community. Interest in LEED certification continues to be a hot trend. While there are currently no points awarded for designs using RoHS-compliant products, a credit under LEED's Materials and Resources category could be a natural fit for future versions of the rating system. Designing for a "green" tomorrow should be a primary goal for savvy builders.

The Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive, in one version or another, will soon spread across our country. While some may be reluctant to accept this, the global ecological implications of these regulations can only be beneficial.

* Tony Warner is director of technology at RTKL, Baltimore, MD

Jon Melchin ([email protected]) is the director of architectural development at FSR and supports architects, engineers, and interior designers nationally, facilitating the specification of FSR products compliant with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. He frequently contributes to various trade publications and conducts American Institute of Architects (AIA)-related professional development courses.

Building Product Manufacturers
Building product manufacturers provide materials vital to the structural scope of a building as well as components critical to the project's performance and sustainability. These products can also greatly benefit the health, safety, welfare, and productivity of a building's occupants.

Manufacturer interest in recognizing the importance of the growing RoHS initiatives is twofold. Not only do they need to be aware of the impact here in the United States, but they must also pay close attention to the changes occurring in Europe, Asia, South America, Canada, and other regions embracing RoHS.

Manufacturers conducting global business are most likely already compliant. But others that only market products domestically will soon find their target market shrinking as RoHS-like restrictions permeate the States. This is a big concern for smaller manufacturers because restricting the hazardous substances from the goods they manufacture requires an investment in new assembly lines, the purchase and installation of new equipment, and the training of additional personnel. While some companies are holding off as long as possible, others realize that RoHS will eventually impact their business, so compliance with the directive is considered to be a worthy strategic investment. 

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