New EU smartphone and tablet proposals need some tweaking and tinkering

The European Commission recently published the draft smartphone and tablet proposals, expected to make our devices longer-lasting, easier to repair, and the best performing models easier to identify. However, the screws still need tightening to push the tech industry towards making devices repairable for the benefits of both consumers and the environment.

Bich Dao reports.

Nearly 20 years since the launch of the first smartphones, average European consumers are holding in their hands mini computers millions times more powerful than the ones that put humans on the moon, composed of Earth’s precious and critical materials, carrying with them the huge carbon footprints of a global value chain from mining, shipping, and assembling. 

Yet, consumers also find themselves forced to buy replacements faster than they need to buy new shoes.

Disposable devices

Of the 450-600 million smartphones in use by consumers in the EU, more than a third of them are in need of replacement due to the current ones failing. On average, European phones are replaced every three years, meaning six new phones being sold every second. 

While our gadgets do not syphon as much energy as planes and cars, the hidden impacts lie in the manufacturing and disposal of our prone-to-fail devices. The extraction of the critical raw materials (e.g. cobalt) for our phones and tablets comes at a high cost to people in the mining area, as well as for the natural world. The inadequate and unsafe recycling of our growing mountain of electronic waste, especially its batteries, continues to leave a toxic mark on the environment.

With the constant demand for new devices, the cumulative embodied carbon footprint exceeds the annual emissions of Estonia. Extending the life of European smartphones by just one year would save 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking one million cars off the European roads.

The devil is in the legal detail

Nearly a decade since the first planned obsolescence scandals, with growing European consumers’ desires for more repairable devices, the Commission has finally released the draft ecodesign and energy labelling measures for smartphones and tablets. 

The proposals have been welcomed by the repair community on many aspects, including the introduction of repair labels to inform consumers, and availability of spare parts including speedy delivery. However, as Fixfest attendees gathered in front of Brussels Apple Store last Friday, the community also called for an airtight regulation to push the tech industry for better sustainable standards. 

The devil, unfortunately, is in the detail, and there are enough devils in the current draft to further delay consumer rights to repair their devices.

An infographic summary of the repair community’s position on the European Commission’s proposals. Read the EEB’s full position on the draft ecodesign and energy labelling requirements.

More transparent repair information

Following France, who pioneered with their own index, the new laws propose a repairability label for smartphones and tablets, which would allow consumers to make informed decisions pre-purchase. The label will be a five-point index ranking devices from most to least repairable, including criteria such as the availability of spare parts and repair information from manufacturers. 

Unfortunately, unlike the French one, the EU index omits the criterion of spare parts affordability, despite pricing being one of the main barriers to repair for consumers. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers can therefore continue to set spare part pricing at an unreasonable amount to undermine repair efforts. In fact, in the current proposal, manufacturers are only required to display the maximum spare parts pricing on their webpages, but are not even legally obliged to stick to it. 

Tenants to the gadgets we buy

Despite being the owners of our devices, when it comes to repairing them, the consumers are the tenants. User autonomy is equal to none due to the hurdles painted on by manufacturers, such as limiting the access to repair information and requiring authorisation.

A black box of modern technology, access to repair information is essential in order to ensure the repair is done correctly. However, currently, full information is only made available for approved professional repairers, excluding smaller repair cafes and end-users.   

The hard(ware) battle does not simply end there. The functionality of the newly installed spare parts (e.g. batteries) might hinge on the authorisation from manufacturers, a common practice called “part-pairing” that is still permitted in the current draft. Here is how it works: some parts have a unique serial number, which is paired by manufacturers to an individual unit of a device using software. When replacing a part during a repair, the new part might not be accepted, or lose some of their functionality unless remotely paired to the device again via software by the manufacturer. This approach, together with the lack of repair information, is meant to create major barriers to independent and self-repair, and deter many potential repairers who do not want to deal with the bureaucratic work. 

Nature is calling

Despite rising environmental concerns in public policies and among consumers, at 16 kilograms per person, Europe continues to lead globally when it comes to e-waste generation per capita and the second largest consumer base for smartphones. It is time Europe leads by example instead on climate-ambitious and consumer-centric regulations for a sustainable tech industry.

The current proposed laws are a good starting point, but still leave many loopholes for manufacturers to hinder repair and unnecessarily drain on critical raw materials for disposable-by-design devices. Despite there not being any technical barriers that can hinder immediate action, the Commission has given manufacturers a generous grace period until 2025 to implement some of these new measures, pushing millions of hard-to-repair devices to market for three more years.   

With the recent EU victory in pushing for a common charger and promising progress in the battery regulation, the new proposals for smartphones and tablets should be emboldened to make airtight laws against tech industries’ favouring of profit over people and planet.