EU Environmental Regulation: What Is the Difference Between RoHS, REACH and WEEE?

Since the early 2000s, the European Union has passed several directives that aim to create products that are not only safer for human health, but also more environmentally friendly. These directives include RoHS, REACH, and WEEE. All three of these regulations must be taken into account when placing products on the EU market.

Table of Contents

What Is RoHS?

RoHS stands for Restriction of Hazardous Substances. The RoHS directive, issued in the European Union, restricts the use of several hazardous materials in electronic and electrical equipment (EEE). All EEE products sold in the EU must comply with RoHS.

RoHS defines EEE 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” (Directive 2011/65/EU). All EU directives that focus on EEE (such as WEEE) use the same definition.

The RoHS directive currently limits the use of ten hazardous substances within EEE in the European Union. The current restrictions are the result of one original directive and two additions known as RoHS II and RoHS III.

Substances Restricted by RoHS

The ten hazardous materials currently included in RoHS can only be used in electronic equipment under the maximum levels laid out by the directive. The allowable amount for each substance except cadmium is 1000 ppm. The allowable amount for cadmium is 100 ppm.

The materials include:

Read more: What is RoHS?

Who Is Subject to RoHS Regulation?

Any manufacturer, importer, or distributor of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) sold in the EU market must be compliant with RoHS. Even small components of EEE, such as cables or other sub-assemblies, must comply with RoHS standards. 

It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure their product complies with RoHS. The manufacturing and testing requirements necessary for RoHS compliance may also increase costs for manufacturers. 

Read more: What is ‘RoHS Compliant’?

What is REACH?

REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals, and is an EU regulation that manages and restricts the use of hazardous chemicals in products manufactured and sold in the EU. Like RoHS, REACH restricts hazardous chemicals, but is not specific to electronics, as RoHS is.

The regulation entered into force on June 1, 2007. 

REACH is designed to protect human health and the environment from the effects of harmful chemicals. The regulation also helps the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) gather information about chemical substances used in products on the EU market. Ultimately, the goal of REACH is to encourage companies to research and use safer alternatives.

All EU manufacturers and importers must register any substances used (above a specific yearly amount) with ECHA. This helps to:

  • Identify risks that these substances pose to human health
  • Prove to ECHA that the company is managing that risk
  • Create guidelines for safe use of their product to protect public health of consumers

Products Restricted by REACH

REACH has an extremely widespread impact, as it applies to all chemical substances used in products manufactured, imported and sold on the EU market. This does not include only industrial processes, but also products we use every day, such as clothes or cleaning products.

REACH also applies to chemicals used in electronic products. When a substance that is restricted by RoHS is added to the list of REACH restricted chemicals, RoHS and REACH may overlap. Usually RoHS is given priority when it comes to regulating EEE, but authorities often try to ensure that REACH and RoHS are compatible.

There are several products that have total exemption from REACH regulation, such as radioactive materials. There are also partial exemptions, products that are exempt from certain restrictions. For example, substances used in food or medicinal products are exempt from the registration and authorisation requirements. For a full list of total and partial exemptions, visit the European Chemicals Agency website.

Substances Restricted by REACH

Chemicals that are regulated by REACH are known as SVHCs, Substances of Very High Concern. SVHCs include chemicals that are carcinogenic or mutagenic, cause reproductive problems, or bioaccumulate. 

SVHCs include several substances also restricted by RoHS, such as phthalates, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

REACH requires companies to disclose and report SVHCs used in their products or packaging.

If a chemical’s risk is viewed to be unmanageable, its use can be banned entirely, restricted, or require prior authorization from the ECHA before use in production. Companies must ensure that their products do not contain substances in amounts exceeding REACH thresholds.

A full list of restricted SVHCs can be found on the ECHA website. 

Who is Subject to REACH Regulation?

REACH affects companies in almost every sector of industry. Companies are responsible for complying with REACH regulation. This includes:

  • Manufacturers in the EU, both of chemicals and finished products
  • Importers in the EU, both of chemicals, chemical mixtures, and finished products
  • Downstream companies: If you handle chemicals in a professional or industrial setting, you may be subject to REACH regulation.

Unlike RoHS and WEEE, companies established outside the EU are not obligated to comply with REACH, even if their products are imported into the EU market. Instead, it is the importers that lie within the EU who are responsible for ensuring REACH compliance.

Regulation and compliance differs by the type of product placed on the market. However, all companies must identify the risks of the substances they manufacture or use in manufacturing, and then demonstrate to ECHA how they are safely and effectively managing that substance’s use. Additionally, information on how to manage risk when using that product must be communicated to consumers.

What is WEEE?

WEEE, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulation, is an EU directive that aims to improve the collection, treatment, and recycling processes of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) that is no longer in use.

The directive works to:

  • Reduce the amount of e-waste that ends up in landfills
  • Encourage redesign of EEE so that it can be dismantled and properly disposed of
  • Increase re-use of WEEE and its components and materials

To achieve these goals, WEEE requires Member States to set specific targets for the amount (by weight) of EEE collected, recycled, and recovered. These targets differ by country.

Products Restricted by WEEE

As of 2018, all EEE is included under WEEE, as every EEE device becomes WEEE at the end of its use.

EEE subject to WEEE regulation is classified under six categories:

  1. Temperature exchange equipment
  2. Screens, monitors, and equipment containing screens with a surface larger than 100 cm2.
  3. Lamps
  4. Large equipment (any dimension larger than 50cm)
  5. Small equipment (no dimension larger than 50cm)
  6. Small IT and telecommunication equipment

Read more: What is WEEE?

Who is Subject to WEEE Regulation?

All producers of EEE must comply with WEEE requirements. The directive defines producers as anyone who:

  • Manufactures and sells EEE under his/her own brand
  • Resells EEE produced by other suppliers under his/her own brand
  • Imports or exports EEE into an EU Member State
  • Sells EEE by “distance” (for example, over the internet) to Member States, even if this seller is in a different country.

The directive sets out specific requirements producers must follow to be WEEE compliant, such as reporting the amount of EEE placed on the market and providing e-waste recycling services to customers. 

Read more: WEEE Compliance

Similar Objectives: Goals of RoHS, REACH, and WEEE

RoHS, REACH, and WEEE all share a similar objective: to protect the environment and human health. 

RoHS- The RoHS directive restricts the use of toxic materials in EEE. RoHS aims not only to protect the health of users of EEE devices, but also to reduce occupational health hazards for manufacturers of EEE. RoHS also keeps hazardous materials from accumulating in the environment after EEE is thrown out.  

REACH- REACH aims to protect human health from the effects of dangerous chemical substances used in products we use in our everyday lives, ranging from clothing to furniture. REACH also seeks to protect the environment by keeping large amounts of dangerous chemicals out of manufacturing, and out of landfills when products are disposed of.

WEEE- WEEE aims to safeguard human health from the effects of EEE at the end of its lifecycle. By improving recycling of e-waste, WEEE keeps hazardous materials used in EEE out of landfills, and thus, out of soil, water, and air. This protects the environment, animals, and human health against toxic materials contained in EEE.

Read more about each regulation’s protection of human health and the environment below.

All three regulations seek to protect the environment and human health by placing requirements on manufacturers and producers of potentially harmful products, rather than on consumers. 

Different Methods: Requirements of RoHS, REACH, and WEEE

While RoHS, REACH, and WEEE all aim to protect the environment and human health, each regulation works to achieve this goal through a different method or set of requirements. 

RoHS, REACH, and WEEE create requirements that fall into three categories, based on where in a product’s life cycle the requirements are focused: during a product’s manufacturing, during a product’s use, or upon a product’s disposal. Even requirements that target the same stage in a product’s life cycle vary greatly by directive.

Product Manufacturing Requirements

Each regulation creates requirements that manufacturers or importers must follow either before placing the product on the market or upon placing the product on the market.

RoHS- RoHS requires that manufacturers of EEE do not exceed the allowable limits of restricted substances. 

Manufacturers must follow a series of steps to confirm compliance and demonstrate compliance to authorities and the public, including testing the product and compiling documentation about the product’s manufacturing. These steps must be taken prior to the product’s placement on the market.

Read more: What is ‘RoHS Compliant’?

REACH- Like RoHS, REACH works to keep dangerous chemicals out of products sold on the EU market. 

Manufacturers and importers are required to research and report on the chemicals used in their products in order to prove the company is able to safely manage the chemical’s risk. Companies must register with the European Chemical Agency before manufacturing a product using potentially toxic chemicals.

REACH requirements emphasize information gathering, as all data is reported to the European Chemical Agency, who compiles data and makes decisions about requirements for chemical use on a case by case basis.

WEEE- Under WEEE, producers must take several steps upon placing EEE products on the market. Producers must:

  • Register and report the volume of EEE placed on the EU market to the correct governing body (which varies by country). 
  • Provide recyclers with the necessary information on how to recycle the EEE product or prepare the product to be re-used.

Read more: WEEE Compliance

Product Use Requirements

Each regulation requires manufacturers to create a marking or messaging that is intended to educate the buyer.

RoHS- RoHS requires manufacturers to put a CE marking on RoHS compliant EEE products. This shows authorities and the public that the product has been carefully evaluated and documented, and does not exceed allowable amounts of hazardous substances restricted by RoHS.

REACH- REACH requires manufacturers and importers of products that use dangerous chemicals to provide guidelines to consumers for how to use the products safely and properly.

WEEE- WEEE requires that all compliant EEE be marked with the “WEEE symbol,” a recycling bin that is crossed out. This helps customers to properly dispose of their EEE products.

Product Disposal Requirements

Only WEEE creates requirements related to disposal of products at the end of their lifecycle.

WEEE- Producers of EEE must create or finance a system for customers to recycle old EEE. This may entail a collection service or a drop-off location. This recycling program must be free of charge to the customer. 

Customers are not penalized for improper disposal, but still benefit from recycling of e-waste. Read more: What is WEEE?

Impacts of ROHS, REACH, and WEEE

EU environmental regulation’s importance can be summarized into three main areas of impact: the market, the environment, and consumer health. RoHS, REACH, and WEEE all impact the cost of relevant products for sellers and buyers and work to protect the natural environment and human health.

1) The Market

All three regulations raise costs for sellers, as they must use new materials or create new compliance programs. This in turn raises costs for buyers, who pay increased prices for their devices. 

RoHS- RoHS raises costs for sellers and buyers of EEE alike. 

EEE manufacturers must use less hazardous and often more expensive methods to produce RoHS-compliant products. Additionally, testing EEE products and ensuring RoHS compliance may be costly.

Buyers also experience increased prices of electronics in order to offset costs faced by manufacturers.

REACH- Like RoHS, REACH may increase costs for sellers and buyers. Manufacturers face increased expenses related to registering with the ECHA. Additionally, using substitute chemicals may be costly.

Buyers may experience increased costs as a result of REACH requirements on manufacturers.

WEEE-  Prices may increase for producers as a result of WEEE requirements, such as the creation of new recycling programs.  However, WEEE allows companies to save costs on materials, as companies can begin to use reused, and thus cheaper, materials. 

Buyers may also face higher prices for their electronic devices due to WEEE. As producers pay increased costs to produce WEEE-compliant products and recycling programs, consumers often offset these costs by paying more for their devices

WEEE has wider-spread market impact as well; a central goal of WEEE is to create a circular economy, an economy in which industry reuses and recycles raw materials. The circular economy minimizes waste and addresses resource scarcity in a world of finite raw materials.

2) The Environment

All three regulations work to keep hazardous materials out of landfills, and thus out of water, soil, and air. This protects the environment and other species from the toxic effects of hazardous materials.

RoHS- The restricted materials listed in RoHS act as environmental pollutants that often end up in landfills. By limiting the amount of these hazardous substances that may be used, RoHS protects the environment and increases the amount of EEE that can be recycled safely.

REACH- REACH reduces the amount of toxic chemicals used in everyday products. Not only does this make the manufacturing process safer, but it also keeps those hazardous chemicals out of the environment when products are disposed of. 

SVHCs restricted by REACH can have far reaching environmental effects, such as river acidification and injury to wildlife. By requiring prior authorization for use of these chemicals, or by outright banning them, REACH works to ensure companies are effectively managing environmental risks.

WEEE- Many electronic devices contain materials such as heavy metals and chemicals that have large environmental consequences upon becoming e-waste. WEEE protects against improper disposal of EEE, which creates environmental pollution, destroys habitats, and impacts the health of other species.

When e-waste is improperly disposed of, toxins and particles are released into the air, causing pollution. These toxic materials can also leech into the soil or groundwater, which can impact crops and drinking water. 

Lastly, WEEE takes up land area when it sits in landfills. By increasing proper recycling measures and encouraging reuse of materials, the WEEE directive helps reduce the amount of space landfills use globally. 

3) Consumer Health

All three regulations protect human health, either by keeping toxic materials out of the manufacturing process or by reducing human exposure to toxic materials in product waste.

RoHS- Several materials restricted by RoHS create toxic waste and occupational hazards that negatively impact human health. EEE that uses higher than allowed amounts of restricted substances cause health problems not only for workers manufacturing the products, but also for recyclers of the products. 

Manufacturing products that use restricted substances also negatively impacts the health of communities located near manufacturing plants.

Lastly, RoHS works to protect human health during the use of products. For example, toys whose paint contains lead, a toxic heavy metal, are not RoHS compliant.

REACH- REACH protects human health by managing the use of dangerous chemicals in products we use every day. SVHCs restricted by REACH can cause extreme damage to human health, such as reproductive harm and cancer. 

REACH helps gather information on dangerous chemicals and ensures that the risks to human health are being managed.  If the ECHA determines that a chemical’s risk cannot be managed and will harm manufacturers or consumers, then the chemical will no longer be used in products sold on the EU market.

WEEE- The WEEE directive works to reduce risks to human health caused by exposure to e-waste. 

E-waste can contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, sulfur and cadmium. If these materials are not disposed of properly, the buildup of contamination in water and soil can cause health problems.

A 2013 WHO study found that exposure to e-waste can cause severe health impacts, including adverse birth outcomes, changes in thyroid function and cell function and decreased lung function (Grant et al. 2013). By creating proper and accessible recycling pathways, WEEE reduces human exposure to e-waste.

RoHS, REACH, and WEEE at a Glance: Comparison Table

Scope: Restricted ProductsRoHS applies to all EEE sold on the UK market, with some exemptions, listed in Article 2 of RoHS 2 (Directive 2011/65/EU).

Read more: What is ‘RoHS Compliant’?
REACH applies to all parts and products sold on the EU market, with some exemptions, listed on the European Chemicals Agency website.WEEE applies to all EEE products sold on the EU market at the end of their life-cycle, with some exemptions.

Read more: WEEE Exemptions.
Restricted SubstancesRoHS includes 10 restricted hazardous substances that are restricted by ppm.
These substances are evaluated at the homogenous materials level.
REACH restricts a list of over 200 SVHCs (Substances of Very High Concern) that are subject to registration, restriction, or prior authorization. The full list can be found on the ECHA website.WEEE does not include restricted substances.
Party Responsible for ComplianceAll manufacturers of EEE sold on the EU market.Manufacturers, importers, and downstream users of chemicals and products restricted by REACH.All producers of EEE sold or distributed on the EU market.

Read more: WEEE Compliance
Relevance to Companies Outside the EUAll companies who sell or import their products in the EU must comply, even if they are established outside of the EU.Companies that are not based in the EU are not subject to REACH regulation. Instead, importers based in the EU must ensure compliance.All producers who sell or import their products in the EU must comply, even if they are established outside of the EU.
EnforcementRoHS is a directive, so each Member State must put it into law separately, and is responsible for enforcement.REACH is a regulation, so it is legally binding across all Member StatesWEEE is a directive, so each Member State must put it into law separately, and is responsible for enforcement.
NoncompliancePenalties may include financial and legal consequences, such as fines and orders to stop shipping or selling a product. Penalties differ across Member States.Penalties may include financial and legal consequences, such as fines and orders to stop shipping or selling a product. Legal consequences may include imprisonment. Penalties differ across Member States.Penalties may include financial and legal consequences, such as fines or prosecution. Companies are often provided with a warning letter following inspection before further steps are taken. Penalties differ across Member States.

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