NGOs and the European Parliament have long been calling for the introduction of eco-design requirements aimed at extending the lifetime of our smartphones. Now, as the European Commission prepares its new circular economy strategy, lawmakers have a unique opportunity to enshrine better smartphone design in law.
Smartphones drive waste and resource crises
Ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives, our phones are reliant on carbon-intensive production processes to supply components made from an array of increasingly rare materials.
Smartphones tend to have a shorter average lifetime than other household electronic and information communication technology (ICT) products, with most phones being used less than three years before being replaced. Each year more than 210 million smartphones are sold to feed Europe’s thirst for new devices - equivalent to 6 new phones every second.
The annual climate impact of Europe’s stock of over 600 million smartphones is equivalent to more than 14 million tonnes of CO2, more than the annual emissions of Latvia. A quick action is needed: analysis by the European Environmental Bureau shows that extending the lifetime of Europe’s smartphones by just one year would save 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.
Apart from the carbon footprint, ICT’s supply chain is notoriously problematic. Social and environmental dumping are foundations of disposable technology. Precarious employment and exposure to pollutants can be observed in extraction, assembly and waste management linked to the electronics industry across the globe.
In Europe, consumers are fed up with short lifespans, while European businesses working in value retention (repair, refurbishment and reuse) face unnecessary barriers.
Take back schemes won’t address the drivers of waste
Common reasons for replacing phones include cracked screens, flagging batteries, damaged headphone jacks and charging ports, and failing home, volume and power buttons. Another common issue is no longer having access to operating system updates, which can quickly render a functioning device useless.
Sales of new phones are also driven by regular updates offered in contracts from service providers, in some cases every 12 months. Insurance providers for phones often replace devices which only have superficial damage, suggesting simple repairs are too expensive or slow.
In relation to products the European Green Deal promises to “prioritise reducing and reusing materials before recycling them.” The communication refers to supporting “take-back schemes to incentivise people to return their unwanted devices such as mobile phones.” These schemes may help to prevent the hoarding of old phones in people’s homes and eventually feed recycling.
However, the schemes do not go much further than the existing waste legislation for electronics nor do they address the underlying causes of phone failures. They may even risk blocking the second life of functioning phones. Furthermore, without improving the design of phones, the precious materials they contain may remain energy intensive and expensive to extract.
Commission under pressure to act on smartphones
At the end of 2019, the European Commission adopted material efficiency provisions for several domestic appliances, such as fridges, washing machines and dishwashers. These measures supported disassembly, availability of spare parts and repair manuals as well as dismantling for recycling. The measures received broad public support and have set a welcome precedent to apply to other products.
This month, together with campaign group Right to Repair Europe, we sent a letter to EU officials demanding regulatory action on smartphones and other small ICT devices too. We also launched an online petition.
We’re asking the European Commission to set minimum manufacturing requirements that would force companies like Samsung, Huawei and Apple to design smartphones that can be disassembled with readily available tools. This would make it much easier to replace a cracked screen and a weak battery. We also want manufacturers to provide spare parts and repair information to all repairers and consumers, which would boost the availability and affordability of repair services.
The time is ripe to move beyond our disposable culture and give people their right to repair the things they own, one screw at a time.
Jean-Pierre Schweitzer is a policy officer with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). He is part of the Right to Repair Europe campaign, a coalition of NGOs advocating for better products that are designed to be repaired and last longer.
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