EU promises unprecedented steps against throwaway economy

Smartphones will need to be more easily repairable under new EU rules that could bring an end to products that are ‘designed to break’. The ‘right to repair’ is just one part of a major new strategy hailed as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we manufacture and use our products” by campaigners this week.

The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) was greeted by the European Environmental Bureau as “the most ambitious and comprehensive proposal ever put forward to reduce the environmental and climate impact of our products and economic activities.”

Welcoming the groundbreaking new strategy Stephane Arditi, the EEB Policy Manager for the Circular Economy said that the Circular Economy Action Plan can be a turning point for sustainability and climate action in Europe, which will hopefully inspire the rest of the world. It shows that the systemic change the people and the planet need is within reach.

[…] a turning point for sustainability and climate action in Europe, which will hopefully inspire the rest of the world. It shows that the systemic change the people and the planet need is within reach.

Stephane Arditi, EEB

Campaigners have long argued that the EU has a political responsibility to reduce resource use as well as the carbon emissions and other environmental impacts resulting from wasteful production and consumption patterns.

The strategy for a circular economy – where products and resources are reused or recycled instead of being thrown away – proposes measured to make sustainable production the norm. It hopes to end ‘premature obsolescence’, where products break or wear out and cannot be fixed.

Earlier this year the EU was praised for providing a right to repair for some home appliances. This week’s announcement includes proposals for minimum repairability requirements that will make it easier to repair, among other electronics, broken smartphones. This could considerably extend their lifespans, the EU executive explained.

An EEB report last year found that by extending the lifespan of the EU’s smartphones, laptops, washing machines and vacuum cleaners by just one year could reduce CO2 emissions by as much as taking two million cars off of Europe’s streets.

The Commission’s strategy aims to transform the way products are designed and manufactured to reduce toxicity and cut waste. It also specifically addresses some of the product groups with the largest environmental footprints, including textiles, electronics, batteries, construction, packaging, and although less prominently also furniture and automotives. 

The EU also wants to set a food waste reduction target and promises to end over-packaging as well as microplastic pollution. Arditi said that the priority now was to turn the promises made in the strategy into laws that can be put into practice. “We only have one planet and yet we consume resources as if we had three. It’s time to do more with less,” he added.

However, the Action Plan was not universally praised. The EEB and Friends of the Earth Europe both criticised missing targets for reducing resource use and for businesses to prevent waste.

The proposal ticks almost all boxes, but does not explicitly target Europe’s over-consumption of resources. Without binding EU-wide targets, governments risk losing momentum and neglecting the fundamental objective of reducing our consumption footprint,” he said.

Last week, the EEB criticized the European Commission for publishing a far less ambitious proposal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Commission’s Industrial Strategy, which was released the day before the Circular Economy action plan, has also been fiercely criticised.

Industrial pollution is one of Europe’s biggest challenges, the EEB said.

Christian Schaible, EEB Industrial Production Policy Manager said:

“A strategy is normally a plan of actions designed to achieve an overall aim. The European Green Deal’s aim is to achieve a circular, decarbonised and zero pollution vision for the EU industry. The Commission fails to grasp the scale of urgency and lacks clarity as to what direction and action to take for a responsible innovation and sustainable transition.”

Schaible stressed the need for the Commission to avoid working only towards “decarbonisation” but rather to take advantage of a golden opportunity for “depollution” – by transforming EU industry to achieve the zero pollution ambition set in the European Green Deal.