Long live our electronics

From Bluetooth speakers to ATMs, our lives depend on an arsenal of electronic devices, the environmental cost of which cannot be overlooked. While the EU prefers to spend years setting ecodesign requirements on a product-by-product basis, new data  and 33 organisations call for horizontal ecodesign requirements to be set for ICT products for real environmental impacts

Orla Butler reports.

Smart watches, Bluetooth speakers, ticket machines, home assistants, card readers, e-readers, ATMs, wireless everything… You might have noticed the explosive growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) gadgets in our homes and surroundings in recent years.

What you might not yet notice is the massive burden it puts on our planet.

Not only are there more electronics than ever on the market, they are also failing beyond repair faster. A device can simply become useless if they are no longer supported by software updates, even after just a few years of use.

Such short lifespans mean that electronic waste is now the fastest growing waste stream in the world with no signs of slowing down. In fact, e-waste now has growth rates 3 times faster than that of the world’s population.

But environmental damage does not only occur when the product turns into waste. Our electronics contain many scarce raw materials – meaning as our demand for these products continues to grow, so will the environmental consequences of material extraction, processing and waste that goes into mining the components of our devices. Mining also often occurs in settings where labour rights are violated, taking a serious toll on the health and safety of the workers involved in the sourcing and handling of the metals.

The growth of demand in turn increases the pressure on the resource bases of the planet’s economies and jeopardizes advances towards a well-being economy for all.

Still no EU regulation

Despite the issues that go hand in hand with the rapidly growing electronics market , Europe has yet to set requirements to counter our growing mountain of failed electronics and their environmental impacts. 

The status of ICT products in the European Commission’s upcoming work is ambiguous. ICT products are not included in the Ecodesign working plan for energy-using products, nor in the new Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation draft working plan for new product groups.

This is in direct contradiction with evidence from the EU’s own research center, which recently came out with their ICT Task Force Study. The report recommends a range of material efficiency policies for consumer electronics using a horizontal approach across product categories, instead of the product-by-product status quo.

Not only would such a horizontal approach be timelier and more cost-effective for the legislature, but there are huge climate rewards to be reaped from horizontally tackling ICT with ecodesign.

The latest Coolproducts research from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) found that improving the performance of these products through such rules could lead to millions of tonnes of CO2 saved, the equivalent of taking nearly 3 millions of cars off the roads. If the entire stock of ICT products complies with better performance requirements, the impact would be like nearly 30 million cars off the road. Such results are hard if not impossible to realise by creating an ecodesign law for each product, with risks of many smaller product categories (e.g., home assistant) slipping through the regulatory cracks.

Calls to do better

The European Parliament has come to the same realisation when they voted to prioritise ICT as a product group to be tackled by horizontal ecodesign measures under the new Ecodesign rules last week. Today, 33 NGOs and circular businesses, representing hundreds of organisations around Europe, called on the European Commission to follow the Parliament’s lead and urgently tackle the environmental problems of ICT products.

If the Commission does not commit to tackling this product group through ecodesign soon, campaigners warn that this environmentally problematic product group could continue to go unregulated to the detriment of the planet.

Products that are supposed to be helping people are set to become a weighty burden on the planet.

As the market – and simultaneously the waste stream – grows, EU ambition must match the environmental impact. The clock is ticking – we need horizontal ecodesign requirements for ICT products now.