How green are the cables in your designs?

Paul Boughton

Tom Aubin explains the challenges for firms looking to gain eco-compliance for multi-country products and the benefits of outsourcing.

Becoming environmentally friendly has been on the wish list of many firms for a number of years now. Ironically, despite the amount of public and political interest in seeing greener electrical and electronic products being sold, currently available cable assemblies and interconnects for video, audio, data, radio frequencies and power are still often not very ‘green’. Making these components environmentally green has become a multi-territory multi-legislature nightmare.

The first misconception to tackle when looking for green cabling or interconnects is what it means to be 'green'. Although plastics are used everywhere, from consumer electronics to children's toys, the type of plastics can vary dramatically.

Two of the frequently present  groups of chemical components which can cause environmental issues are called halogens and phthalates. The halogens include chlorine and bromine, and are used as flame retardants. Chlorine in particular is a key part of polyvinylchloride, better known as PVC, which is the most widely used plastic in cabling.

The benefit of PVC is that it's a self-extinguishing plastic. On the down side, when PVC does burn it produces the extremely hazardous substances of dioxin and hydrogen chloride gas, as well as around 100 other toxic compounds. Not only would the toxic fumes given off when the cables burn be dangerous to occupants in the building but the dioxin contamination could persist for decades afterwards.[Page Break]

There's also the problem when outdated electronic products are thrown out. Many of these end up in landfill, although there are initiatives to try to eliminate this, like Europe’s WEEE directive which aims to reduce the amount of electrical and electronic equipment being produced and to encourage everyone to reuse, recycle, and recover it. But any hardware that does end up in landfill will break down over time and then the harmful chemicals can leak into the environment.

Phthalates, also known as phthalate ester, are often used as plasticizers in plastics such as PVC to increase flexibility. However phthalate can leach out of the polymeric material during manufacture and during use - and then be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. The possible health hazards include damage to organs, developmental abnormalities, and increased rates of asthma and allergic diseases.

With such potential dangers it's understandable that companies and the public at large are increasingly concerned about where such chemicals are used and in what quantities. Organisations such as Greenpeace also raise public awareness by providing information such as their 'Guide to Greener Electronics' which ranks the top 18 manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs, and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling, and climate change. It's been a powerful way to name and shame corporations, gaining media coverage in many countries worldwide. You wouldn’t want your company to appear at the bottom of the list![Page Break]

Green has been made a vitally important issue. Consumers are now savvy to the environmental credentials of manufacturers and their products, and are putting pressure on them to be more ecologically responsible.

What this has done is to fuel companies' green aspirations, to instigate a revamping of their brands to not only appease the electronics-buying public but also the firm's stakeholders. The problem is that 'going green' isn't as simple as it might appear. There isn't a clear cut definition of what makes a product ecologically friendly but sourcing your cable assemblies, powercords and interconnects from a firm with the necessary multi-territory legislative and supply chain experience to help you navigate your way through the complexities.[Page Break]

Setting standards

Let's take the current hot topic in cabling as an example, halogen-free cables.

Replacing traditional PVC cables with ones that avoid the reliance on chlorine is a difficult problem. Volex's research division in Singapore spent many man years exploring a vast variety of compounds that could be used to replace PVC whilst still providing the same performance.

One of the biggest problem is that there isn't a worldwide de facto standard that defines the requirements for halogen-free power cords. Each region of the world has a different set of regulations or legislation that defines cable material specifications.

In Japan they have JCS4509 which states that the jacket and insulation on a cable must be made of either flame retardant polyolefin or ethylene rubber.

Whereas the USA and Canada specify the use of a thermoplastic elastomer, or TPE, in their UL 62/CSA22.2 safety standard for flexible cords.

It's different again in Europe where HD 21.14.S1 doesn't just specify the use of a thermoplastic compound, it also has extra tests for pH and the amount of halogen acid gas emissions.

It's no better for phthalate-free products, used in power cords for games consoles power adaptors for example. If you take just the USA, there's a dazzling array of different safety codes and legislative Acts that are applicable, both country-wide and also at a State level.

The US TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) provides the country's Environmental Protection Agency with the authority to require manufacturers to report and keep records of potentially harmful chemical substances and mixtures. There's currently a motion to add eight Phthalate compounds to the Act. [Page Break]

On top of that, there's section 108 of the CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act) which sets a limit of 0.1 per cent for three Phthalate compounds: DEHP,  DBP, and BBP. And if the item can be placed in a child's mouth then DINP, DIDP, and DnOP also have to be less than 0.1 per cent.

Then on a state level California for example has a Health and Safety Code which totally bans the six Phthalates listed in the CPSIA in all products for children under the age of three, an initiative of the State's Department of Toxic Substances Control called 'California Green Chemistry' which aims to reduce the production of hazardous substances, and California Proposition 65 which will enforce manufacturers to notify the authorities if they use substances like BBP, DEHP, DBP, or DnHP.

And then you've got the additional pressure brought by environmental organisations like Greenpeace which, although it may not be backed by legislation, still significantly sways public opinion and the world's media.

It's not surprising that there's confusion out there. It must be very problematic for a global manufacturer to buy cables or interconnects, integrate them into a product, and then be sure that those products will be able to be sold worldwide. [Page Break]


So this combination of country-by-country regulations plus the array of voluntary green measures is putting an enormous burden on design teams just to get what used to be seen as 'simple' cable assemblies, interconnects, and power cords for each new product.

At Volex, being our core business, we’ve researched all of the disparate international regulations and voluntary green initiatives relating to cables and connectors. We've then created a portfolio of halogen-free cables, and connectors for some 40 different regions. It's been a process of constantly developing new products to respond to the demand that we've had from our clients.

The benefit for them is that we take care of the design, production, and most importantly testing of the cables and interconnects against regulatory and voluntary requirements for all 40 plus territories.

By the way, I can't stress enough the importance of the testing. It's a process that can take days to complete and a substantial sum of money. Imagine that you've got a couple of dozen of these standards to test against and if you fail then it's back to the drawing board to come up with another solution and potentially the whole project in delay for a seemingly simple cable assembly..

'Green' also isn't cheap. That’s certainly something that a company needs to carefully consider. Currently, in rough terms, a company that moves from using a traditional PVC cord to using halogen-free TPE cords will see an increase in price between three to five times. There is also a lengthening on the lead time for the supply chain because halogen-free materials are only produced by a number of selected sources and then need to be imported into manufacturing locations such as China.

At the moment the current high price for halogen-free products means that only premium brands see themselves as able to afford to invest in such solutions. But we believe that it's likely that demand for green products will mean more products will be forced to move to environmentally-friendly materials.

So there will soon be many firms which have traditionally used PVC cables which will be facing the pressure to move to green products that they'll have no experience in. That's where turning to an expert OEM cable assembly and interconnect partner like ourselves can really pay off.

Not only can a partner provide guidance for firms who are moving into areas that they have no experience in, but if you work with a large manufacturer who has a wide range of products then you can make savings by consolidating your vendor base. Don't have dozens of contracts with multiple suppliers if instead you can streamline the whole process, simplifying the organisational aspect of your cabling and interconnect procurement.

Green is something that's only going to become more important as the debate about climate change continues and governments bring in more and more measures to protect our planet.

Tom Aubin is CTO with Volex.