EU initiative 'Waste reduction and the right to repair

[German]The EU Commission wants to take action against the waste and also electronic devices waste, i.e. appliances that are left without updates shortly after market launch, or devices which are broken just after end of warranty and then be thrown away. Sustainability for smartphones and notebooks as well as the reduction of waste in general, including the 'right to repair' of things is on the agenda and should become law.


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The topic has been 'the elephant in the room' for some time (see this press release from October 1, 2019), now the EU Commission has come up with a proposal. I saw it yesterday evening in the German broadcasting news: The EU Commission has presented its plans for a law to reduce the amount of waste caused by broken appliances (partly caused by obsolescence) and to force repairing devices. Recycling instead of throwing away is the new motto and is planned to become law in Europe.

We all know that: The smartphone that has quirks or doesn't get any updates after the warranty expires. The IoT devices, which are expensive electronic crap after 2 years because the manufacturer switches off the required services. But also the destruction of unsold goods – even durable food – as well as packaging waste is an economic activity that we can no longer afford.

Action plan against waste, for more sustainability

Yesterday, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the EU Commission presented an action plan for recycling management. The EU Commission is taking a step to the low-carbon and resource-efficient economy of the future. Being an economic heart of the Green Deal, circular economy is in fact the guarantee for sustainable growth of our economies.

The action plan contains important elements for realizing the "right to repair" in Europe. The linear growth model of "take-make-use-discard" has reached its limits. With the growth of the world population and consumption, this linear model pushes mankind closer and closer to a resource crisis. The only way ahead is decoupling economic growth from extraction of primary resources and their environmental impacts. This is very much in line with both the industrial strategy the EU Commission adopted, and the biodiversity strategy that's just around the corner.

"Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only," criticised Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans at the presentation of the so-called action plan for the recycling industry. In presenting the action plan, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius stated that longer periods of use should become the norm for electronic equipment. A targeted collection and processing of electronic waste is also planned. The Commission has set the same goal for batteries.


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In 2011/2012, I was engaged on the topic of non removable batteries in smartphones and tablets as well as notebooks/ultrabooks at the EU Commission (namely EU Commissioner Neeli Kroes), the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), Greenpeace, and the green party etc. (see my German article Wegwerfelektronik durch Akkutechnik – Umweltsauerei sondersgleichen). And despite the intervention of the ombudsman of the EU Commission, I finally failed terribly, as you can read in the German article Mobilgeräteakkus und die Umwelt – Teil 2). 

In a five-year plan, the European Commission outlines the planned measures to move from the wasteful "take-make-use-dispose" economic model to a system in which more sustainable products, services and business models become the new norm. In view of the frustration that currently available products break down too quickly and cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, the plan also promises a "new right to repair" to be established as an important lever for change.

Circular Economy Action Plan

The new Circular Economy Action Plan is about taking all of this to mainstream. The EU Commission designed this new Action Plan with three goals in mind. They want to strengthen competitiveness of European industry, empower consumers and protect the environment at the same time. The plan is rich in actions and various work strands that aim at improving many aspects of our daily life. At the heart of the plan is the sustainable product policy framework.

The EU Commission want to make sure that products placed on EU market are designed to last longer, to be easier to repair and upgrade, easier to recycle and easier to reuse. Consumers will be better protected, with a genuine right to repair. This will be a game changer for consumers that currently have no other real option but to throw away dysfunctional products.

The EU Commission will be giving more power to consumers through better information about products and services. When you have information that is trustworthy and reliable, you can avoid green-washing much more easily.

Green products should become the norm among citizens, but we have to start from ourselves, the public authorities. Green public procurement requirements will be essential to boost demand for more sustainable products and services.

The new Circular Economy Action Plan focuses on the sectors that use most resources, the areas where circularity will have maximum effect. It includes electronics and ICT, plastics, textiles, packaging, batteries and vehicles, construction and buildings, food, water and nutrients.

The EU Commission want to transform these sectors into circular systems where waste is reduced to the minimum. If waste cannot be avoided, it has to be turned into a valuable resource. As Europe is not rich in natural resources, the circular economy would strengthen the immunity of our economy from geopolitical challenges. It will provide new business opportunities in the EU and beyond, to the benefit of citizens.

For example, electronics and ICT are products for which each consumer would want to have the right to repair, including to upgrade. We will also explore options for an EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back old phones, tablets and chargers. In addition, we will also address non-rechargeable batteries, where alternatives exist.

Another item which consumer hold daily is our hands, often without noticing, is packaging. Packaging waste generation reached a record level – each one of use generates more than 170 kilograms per capita. The only way is down. We will work on design for re-use and recyclability of packaging, mandatory  recycled plastic content and waste reduction targets.

The EU Commission will also address the sectors that create a lot of pressure on our environment – construction, transport and food. For these sectors you can expect dedicated strategies that will again look at the whole lifecycle of products.

This second Action Plan is very wide ranging, with many ground-breaking, legislative initiatives to be rolled out over the course of this mandate. I am confident that those actions will improve many aspects of our lives, create numerous business opportunities and have a positive impact on the environment.

That's interesting: In 1969 I started an apprenticeship in the electrical trade, and the repair of small electrical appliances was part of my business. When I finished the apprenticeship 3 1/2 years later, there were hardly any repairs left. Buying new goods was sometimes considered cheaper than repairing – and a short time later many appliances were designed in such a way that even a broken wire at the power supply could not be repaired by replacing the cable.

I also mentioned above my initiative 8 year ago, to convince the EU Commission to ban portable devices non removable batteries, but I failed. After years, some people at the have checked the need for change. So a new initiative of the EU Commission is coming. The Commission hopes that its concept will create 700,000 new jobs within this decade.


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