Photo by Mark A Phillips
On 31 August 2022, the Commission finally published its long-awaited draft ecodesign and energy labelling requirements for phones and tablets.
This regulation has the potential to ensure that phones and tablets used by Europeans are designed sustainably, thereby slowing the avalanche of electronic waste that has been caused by hard to repair devices.
By ensuring that phones and tablets are more durable and easier to reuse, repair and remanufacture, such measures would reduce their combined life cycle impacts, but also lessen the environmental impacts arising from the mining of well over 50 different metals needed to make an average device.
What will improve: batteries replaceability, features to facilitate reuse and information on spare parts price
The most significant measure proposed by the European Commission will be making batteries and displays for smartphones end-user replaceable with commercially available tools and for all devices. However, an exemption to this requirement exists when manufacturers respect certain battery endurance and water resistance features, meaning that consumers will have to choose between repairability and reliability. Furthermore, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will be obliged to provide information on battery minimum endurance, maintenance and management, including impacts on battery life of different use factors.
The sustainable design of smartphones and tablets will also facilitate reuse of the devices via data encryption features, software enabling restoration of factory settings and logging information such as such as measured state of battery health.
In addition, the price of spare parts will become more transparent, as OEMs will have to indicate an expected maximum pre-tax price for genuine spare parts that will be available for professional repairers and / or end-users. Sadly, however, the EU Commission removed the previous stipulation that “The stated maximum pre-tax price may not be increased after it has been published on the website.” Therefore the maximum price will be purely indicative (or could be entirely misleading) and OEMs will be able to sell parts for more.
Finally, refurbishers will be considered as professional repairers, which means that they will have the same rights and opportunities as repairers (in terms of availability of OEM spare parts, access to repair and maintenance information). This is really good news as refurbishers and repairers share the same challenges!
The EU must do better on the availability of spare parts and the manufacturers’ ability to block repairs
However, key issues considerably limiting the impact of the proposed act are not addressed. In short, the overall climate ambition of the measures is inconsistent with European climate targets and manufacturers will still be able to put barriers to repairs and to limit the life of their devices to sell new ones to EU citizens. The implementation of the current draft act would contribute to a reduction of 33% of emission by 2030, while our objective is a reduction of 55% by 2030. Manufacturers will still retain the upper hand on independent repairers as well as end-users and will continue to hinder repairs via software tricks and by restricting access to repair information and spare parts.
Let’s have a look at how access to repair information and spare parts will be affected by the proposal. Access to repair information will be provided for 7 years, but only for professional repairers who demonstrate being compliant with national regulations on their profession or if registered on a national list of professional repairers when this exists. OEMs will be the first judge of this compliance and will have to justify their decision if rejecting a request.
Furthermore, OEMs may charge “reasonable fees” for access to this info. Manufacturers will continue to have the discretion of deciding whether or not the professional repairer “has the technical competence to repair smartphones”. To transition away from disposable electronics we know that repair must become mainstream and accessible to anyone, so why maintain all these obstacles and limitations?
We consider very problematic the emerging trend in draft ecodesign legislation to provide a range of legal permissions to OEMs that restrict rather than enable repair. This is achieved through specifying restricted access to certain parts to only professional repairers, restricting the entities considered as professional repairers to entities with liability insurance, allowing OEMs to charge for the repair information they are obliged to provide, and allowing manufacturers to have the final say on whether a replacement part is accepted or not through permitting parts pairing and serialisation. Legislation truly addressing the right to repair should allow for widespread access to information for free, and access of all parties including end users to purchase parts. The power to decide if a replacement part is accepted or not must be in the hands of the user, not the OEM.
Now let’s look at spare parts availability. An extensive list of spare parts will be provided to professional repairers if they are lucky enough to be approved by the OEM. However, access to spare parts for end-users will be limited to the battery, casing, display assembly, chargers and SIM and memory card tray. In addition, manufacturers will have the right to choose between reliable batteries (retaining at least 80% of their capacity after 1000 full charge cycles and lasting 30mn underwater) OR designing them to be repairable by end-users and making the spare parts available to them.
We think that everyone deserves access to all spare parts and users shouldn’t have to choose between endurance and repairability.
Finally, the use of compatible spare parts is not clearly allowed and “set in stone”, while they are used in the majority of repairs, as they are less expensive and mostly as good as OEM spare parts.
It was also disappointing to discover that the unfair and absurd practice of part pairing is protected within the current wording of the draft regulation. If a professional repairer replaces a part that was serialised with the motherboard, they will likely be obliged to ask for authorisation to the manufacturer, who may reject the part if it is not genuine OEM. We think it should be the user/owner who authorises repairs, and not the manufacturer!
In addition, necessary software updates won’t be available for long. As the different software updates are poorly defined in the text, it will be very easy for manufacturers to circumvent provisions and to provide operating system updates only for 3 years. At least 7-8 years of software updates are necessary if we are serious about designing long lasting repairable and reusable devices!
In fact we believe that the different timelines for measures should be aligned. The EU Commission currently proposed 7 years availability of repair information, 5 years availability of spare parts and 3 years of software updates. We need all three elements for devices to last longer, so this should all be brought to 7 years.
Ignoring these issues will keep the EU doing too little, too late
Overall, the climate ambition of the measures is insufficient and inconsistent with our European climate targets.
This proposal for design rules for smartphones and tablets also represents our first opportunity to discuss a repairability index at EU level (whereas it already exists in France). The repairability index proposed in the draft act consists of a 5 point scale ranking devices from most to least repairable. Unfortunately pricing of spare parts has been omitted as a criteria for the repair index. This is extremely disappointing considering that price is a crucial factor in a consumer’s decision to repair or replace, notably given the cost of living crisis.
Finally, the exemption for ‘mobile phones and tablets with a flexible main display which the user can unroll and roll up partly or fully’, leaves the door open for considerable lost savings if display technology shifts in this direction.
Why smartphones and tablets need to be regulated
We’ve been campaigning for regulations on smartphones since the start of the European Right to Repair Campaign. There are more mobile phones in use globally than the total number of people living on Earth. In the EU alone more than 6 smartphones are sold every second.
The climate and environmental footprint of these devices is tremendous. Producing the average smartphone generates 85 kg of waste. Europe’s smartphones are responsible for more carbon emissions than the entire country of Latvia. By far the highest share of this environmental footprint occurs during the manufacturing of these devices (more than 75%, higher than most electrical and electronic devices).
Finally, we know that EU citizens prefer to repair than to replace. When will the measures finally match the environmental and social consequences of the sectors the EU is trying to regulate?
Right to Repair campaign previous responses to impact assessment and consultation for this regulation:
Coolproducts position papers on EU policy on smartphones:
Stats on environmental impact of smartphones:
- https://eeb.org/library/coolproducts-report/ specifically page 14 on smartphones
Photo by Mark A Phillips