These companies are figuring out how to reduce the toxics in electronics

1/11/2016 Rachel Cernansky Ensia Blogs

As global consumption of cellphones and other devices soars, industry searches for ways to decrease the threat of chemical components to people and the environment.

On a Wednesday in late February 2010, Hewlett-Packard hosted an unusual training session at its offices in Fort Collins, Colorado. The technology company had decided to eliminate polyvinyl chloride, or PVC — a type of plastic that releases harmful chemicals during production and when burned after disposal — from its power cords. But it realized that to get PVC out of its products, it was going to have to get its suppliers to do so, too. This training was an opportunity for those supplying power cables to the company (now known as HP) to learn about a tool that could help identify alternatives to PVC:GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals. Developed by the nonprofit Clean Production Action, GreenScreen provides a means of comparing hazard assessments of chemicals in order to choose safer alternatives.

“At HP, we buy a lot of power cables. We knew that because of our buying power, we could have some influence on what the industry was doing,” says Paul Mazurkiewicz, a technologist for materials at HP. “We went really far back in the supply chain, to the people that fundamentally make these materials, and we trained them on how to use the GreenScreen and let them know that HP would be making choices based on the GreenScreen in the future.”

HP is not alone: Around the world, electronics companies are working to reduce their use of chemicals that are known to be hazardous to human health, the environment or both.

What’s the Problem?

From cellphones to computers to televisions, electronics are manufactured with a long list of substances that are known to be toxic, including metals such as lead and hexavalent chromium, and other contaminants such as phthalates and brominated flame retardants. They all serve specific roles: Lead is extremely effective as a solder, for example, and flame retardants keep our computers from bursting into flames while we type. But with many of these chemicals, there’s a health trade-off: Hexavalent chromium is linked with cancer, for example, and lead causes irreversible damage to developing fetuses and children and can contaminate water supplies and harm plants and animals.


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