Could a Universal Charger in the EU Help Reduce Our Electronic Waste?

With ‘second-hand September’ having ended, it’s time to reflect on our consumption and how we can all reduce our waste to make the transition towards a more circular economy. Over-consumption exists everywhere and in all aspects of our lives; it is currently the way of the society we live in.

Did you know that, according to the EPA, people in Ireland produce over 13 million tonnes of waste every year? Electronic goods account for one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide. In 2019, Ireland surpassed all EU targets for recycling and recovery of this form of waste, producing 62,600 tonnes! There is good news though: It is time for consumers to be heard when it comes to the lifespan of our devices, and the EU have decided to impose a universal USB-C type phone charger which will ultimately reduce this shocking figure.

The EU parliament have been talking about promoting durability and high-quality production when it comes to our devices for years. We are beginning to see an end to what is known as ‘planned obsolescence’, the concept that our devices are created with the intention of failing us after a given length of time. Seems unfair, doesn’t it? The truth is that at present, the average lifespan of a smartphone is 15 to 18 months, and this is regardless of how well you handle it. According to a series of Eurobarometer surveys conducted in 2014, 77% of consumers in Europe would rather repair or upgrade their products than purchase new ones. However, the problem is that getting our goods repaired usually comes at a high cost, and often the option to repair our devices is unavailable to us due to factors such as location, service provided, etc. We need manufacturers to provide us with complete transparency and this is not just in our best interest, but in the interest of our planet too.

So why exactly is it that our products are built to fail? There was a time when goods were created to last a lifetime, with the intention that repairing them was part of their lifespan. This is no longer the case, which we can mostly attribute to the companies responsible for designing our products. These reasons may include:

  • Materials chosen for the creation of the product which may be inferior and more ‘breakable’
  • The product may be impossible to repair without going directly to the manufacturers themselves (such as the case with the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max for example, which costs an average of $519 merely to fix a cracked screen)
  • The device may be designed in a way that will quickly go out of fashion due to the constant shift in trends
  • The device may be created in a way that will make previous versions of it unusable due to constant updates
  • The device may also be completely sabotaged due to such updates and will eventually become useless, regardless of how well it’s been looked after.

So what does this mean for the companies in question, responsible for creating these goods? Pascal Durand, a member of the European Parliament, urged back in 2017 that “We have to make sure that batteries are no longer glued into a product, but are screwed in so that we do not have to throw away a phone when the battery breaks down. We need to make sure that consumers are aware of how long the products last and how they can be repaired”.

The companies in question pushed back against this notion however, and Apple are notorious for this. In February of 2020, Apple were fined €25 million by the French government for deliberately slowing down their iPhones without telling consumers. The software updates issued to users of the iPhone 6, iPhone 7 and iPhone SE capped the performance because the batteries of these models couldn’t handle the increase in energy use that the updated software required. It’s this total lack of transparency that the EU are trying to combat.

Although imposing a universal charger within the EU doesn’t solve this problem, it’s a good place to start in terms of electronic waste and will surely provide an example to countries outside the EU too.