European Parliament looking into updating the Eco-design Directive

The European Parliament will be looking into the possibility of updating the Eco-design Directive to include smartphones, which, until now, where not required to follow these rules. 

Artículo disponible en Español | Article disponible en Français

Smartphones were left out of the Eco-design Directive, as the life cycle of such devices is much shorter than the others. The Eco-design Directive sets requirements specific products should comply with, related to energy efficiency. If these products don’t meet the minimum requirements, they can’t be sold inside the European Union. Some examples of such products are computers and servers, televisions, dishwashers, freezers, heaters, water pumps, etc.

There are two types of requirements in the Eco-design Directive. These are: specific and generic requirements. Specific are when exact values are measured, and a limit is given. Generic can be giving instructions on how to maintain the product to minimize its environmental impact or labelling it as “energy efficient”. Modifications of the limits can mean old products will be banned, such as incandescent lamps, which can’t be bought anymore.

The European Parliament has concluded the life cycle of a smartphone is of around 2 years. Some of the new measures could include higher standards or a modular design, making it easier to repair the device if broken. This involves, for example, using screws instead of melding parts together. Using the Parliament’s own numbers, 77% of Europeans would rather repair a broken product than replace it. Furthermore, a Eurobarometer survey claims 90% of Europeans believe products should be clearly labelled, indicating their longevity.

These discussions also involve the circular economy the EU wants to slowly move into, instead of the current linear one. In a linear economy, the consumer will just buy, consume and then throw away the used product. In a circular economy, the consumer will buy, consume the product, then repair it or recycle it, and repeat the cycle, thus reducing waste generation. In other words, this is the “planned obsolescence” issue, which, quick reminder, is illegal in the EU.

The European Parliament claims that a better design would allow consumers to replace the battery more easily, as well as recycle more of the rare metals used in the manufacturing of the device. Quoting the documents available on the EP website, “It is estimated that as little as between 1 and 5% of the rare metals, such as tungsten, cobalt, graphite and indium, used in the manufacture of mobile phones is currently recycled.”

Now, this does seem like a good proposal, as it is true that many manufacturers will make devices that are hard to repair and barely reach the 24-month guarantee period. But we shouldn’t forget that modular smartphones are already a thing. The Dutch company Fairphone tried to make one, which eventually ended up failing, due to not being up-to-date and lacking availability of replacement parts. After a few years, the parts needed to repair the device weren’t manufactured anymore, thus rendering the smartphone, and its concept, useless.

But there are many other problems with implementing this legislation effectively:

  • Batteries are now most of the time glued to the frame of the device, to avoid any issues while in transit, so they don’t move. Removing them can be relatively difficult and unsafe, as bending them is sometimes needed.
  • Replacing the screen can be a costly operation. In many cases, the manufacturer chooses to glue the screen to the frame, as well as most of the parts of the smartphone, such as battery and motherboard, forcing the customer to replace half of the device just for a screen fix. The screen could indeed be mounted in other ways but gluing it to the frame is the best method, both in terms of longevity and reparability, as technicians can replace those parts faster.
  • Some things such as a glass back on a smartphone, make these devices last less long. Glass backs are prone to breaking from a single drop.
  • Consumers demand specific features on smartphones. This currently includes wireless charging, which shortens the battery life, as well as IP67 and IP68 ratings, which make the phones water resistant (not water proof!). This second feature is done by using massive amounts of glue, making repairs a nightmare, forcing the back to be heated up, and in some cases replacing entire parts. After the repair is done, closing back up the phone is done with basic adhesive, meaning the device loses this rating anyway.
  • Smartphone manufacturers try, year after year, to cram more tech inside their phones, to both convince consumers to buy them as well as to please them. This forces them to design the devices in ways that make it much harder to repair, as everything is crammed in less space. Some companies will intentionally design their phones in ways they can’t be repaired or put glue inside to make any repairs impossible.

Concerning costly repairs, it is true that, in many cases, replacing a broken screen can easily be half the cost of the device itself. In worse cases, such as a smartphone that has been exposed to water or humidity, replacing rusted parts can be costlier than buying a new device.

Pushing manufacturers to change the way they design and make their products could be an interesting move, as, yes, sadly enough, smartphones are some of the devices that last the less in our current society and recycling them in many cases isn’t possible. But, let’s not forget that, now-a-days, we use our smartphones constantly, with some of us giving them quite a rough treatment. Making them last 2 years is already quite a feat, but 4 years for a device that is used daily? It is not impossible, though between natural wear of specific components, software and hardware advances/evolutions, and daily use, this will be hard to achieve.

On the other hand, this may mean giving up some of the features we currently see on high end devices, such as water resistance, to be able to easily replace the battery.

The update to the Directive will be discussed tomorrow, May 30th, by the European Parliament. If enough support is given to it, it’ll be forwarded to the European Commission for consideration. Previous attempts have failed, as this is not the first time an update to the Eco-design Directive is discussed.