Action taken against REACH and RoHS regulations at Optatec

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A draft proposal to exclude lead and cadmium used in optical glass and filters from REACH and RoHS legislation has been reviewed at a meeting on 21 May at the Optatec trade fair. Jessica Rowbury reports from the show

At the opening press conference for Optatec, which took place 20-22 May in Frankfurt, Dr Wenko Sueptitz, head of the Photonics Division of the Spectaris Industry Association, spoke about two EU regulations − REACH and RoHS − that are restricting the use of heavy metals in optical components.

Spectaris has now completed a draft of a request to exclude lead and cadmium used in optical glass and filters from the legislation. This draft request was reviewed during a meeting at the show.

Dr Sueptitz spoke to Electro Optics at Optatec regarding the progress that has been made, and the actions that still need to be taken to ensure that the EU directives will not harm the optics industry.

REACH regulates on the registration, evaluation, authorisation, and restriction of chemicals, in order to avoid the public coming in contact with hazardous substances. RoHS restricts or prohibits the use of mercury, lead, cadmium, and other hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment.

The issue is that some of these banned substances are used in optical products, for instance in optical glasses that contain lead, and filter glasses which may contain cadmium or lead. These raw materials are necessary in order to provide glass with special characteristics, without which numerous applications such as in the fields of endoscopy, fluorescence microscopy and camera technology, would not be possible.

And, even though the materials are used in trace amounts and are harmless once bound into glass, optical products are still threatened by the restrictions. ‘At the moment, the German as well as the international photonics sector is grappling in particular with the RoHS directive and the EU’s REACH regulation,’ stated Wenko at the press conference.

Spectaris, the German high-tech industry association, represents over 100 optics and photonics companies and is acting as a spearhead to address the legalisation. An exemption that applies to ‘lead and cadmium in optical glasses and filters’, for which Spectaris campaigned vehemently for, is due to expire in July 2016 − and a renewal must be submitted 18 months prior to this date.

After several months of coordination between its member companies, Spectaris has prepared the draft of a request for a five year extension on the current deadline. ‘We have a pre-final draft of the exemption request, with many contributions from about 30-40 companies in Germany,’ Wenko told Electro Optics.

It is also anticipated that the renewal request will be championed by additional European and non-European industry associations. ‘We are in talks with the European electronics companies, and other kinds of associations in Europe, and also companies from Japan and the US,’ explained Wenko. ‘What we suggest to the European partners is that they are free to join us after we have discussed with them if they require additions, or if they have different ideas to what we should actually ask for − they are wondering whether we should have one unified exemption request.’

During the meeting that occurred on the 21 May at Optatec, the draft was reviewed by some of the companies who have been heavily involved in the preparation. ‘It was a technical session going through the draft line-by-line to see what was missing and what needs to be changed,’ said Wenko. In the meeting there was the large manufacturer of glass, Schott, who has been very active in the exemption process, and larger companies such as Zeiss who contribute a lot to this work. He also added that the writing of the documentation was carried out by UK company ERA technologies.

The exemption request is almost complete, with only one more meeting to take place to review the draft. ‘What we anticipate is that our final draft will be available in a month, or definitely before the summer,’ Wenko noted.

After that, Spectaris will be pursuing a way to achieve permanent exemption for lead and cadmium in optical and filter glass. ‘First we want to continue the exemption request, but the middle and long term goal is to come to a solution where we don't have to keep re-submitting the request again and again − because it is getting costly,’ Wenko said. ‘What we hope we can get to is that optical materials get excluded from the laws. The next window for a change of this sort will open up during the years 2018 through 2020.’

An upward struggle

Although things are looking more positive for lead and cadmium containing optical glass and filters, the REACH regulation lists 151 substances as ‘very high concern’ which will require special requirements for photonics companies. These substances include arsenic oxide, which is important for the production of glass and is contained in Zerodur glass ceramic.

From 21 May 2015, arsenic oxide will no longer be allowed to be used in production, except in special cases, and must be classified as an ‘intermediate substance’ within the production sequence. ‘However, classification of substances into the “intermediate substance” category carried out by the industry itself can be contested by third parties under certain circumstances, and thus no legal security can be assured,’ stated Wenko.

Spectaris and its members are now trying to ‘assure that clear-cut rules for the classification of materials of intermediate substances are developed, and that tight controls for the handling of arsenic oxide, boric oxide and perhaps other substances used in production of special glass will be turned over to qualified, national realms of responsibility,’ Wenko said in his presentation.

Education, education, education

Wenko believes that not enough people are aware of the EU legislation. When asked if trade shows such as Optatec help to bring the industry’s attention to the issue, he noted that it is a challenge to raise awareness among companies who deal with just the end products: ‘Many companies think that it is not their business, but then if you look deeper into their products it quite easy to realise that it is, because there are specialised glasses in so many applications of companies who do not consider themselves as an optical or photonics company,’ he explained. ‘There is a huge leverage factor for photonics - many optical elements that are affected by these regulations are not visible in the product at the end.

‘What needs to happen is to get all of the companies in the industry on board, as well as the wider public; especially politicians. We still have until December before we submit the request and the EU will decide late in 2015; so we still have one more year left on the more public side to promote the idea,’ Wenko continued. ‘Despite what we have accomplished, we are still more or less at the beginning of the process to raise the awareness.’