70 kg of raw materials per unit, rare metals with extremely polluting extraction processes, production lines that are far from environmentally neutral, global logistics with high CO2 emissions, all multiplied by billions of terminals. As we know, the ecological cost of the smartphone, this technological jewel that no one can do without, is catastrophic.
Without being miraculous, the most virtuous solution – pushed by the public authorities – is the extension of the duration of the use of our phones, linked to the establishment of a functional circular economy, especially around the refurbished ones. It is with this in mind that since the end of 2020 the European Commission has been working on a new directive aimed at forcing manufacturers to market smartphones and tablets that are designed to be more durable.
This initiative is part of the European Green Deal and the 2020 circular economy action plan. It was developed for more than a year and went through three months of public consultations in 2021 and has just entered its final phase, the final design, before being submitted to the Commission for adoption in the fourth quarter of 2022.
Towards more durable, repairable and reusable smartphones
This text, which begins by proposing a balance on the ecological impact of the smartphone and its premature renewal, will make new ecodesign standards mandatory, which manufacturers will not be able to deviate from if they want to sell their devices in developing countries. EU. Phones to be more durable, more repairable and more recyclable, limiting the amount of electronic waste generated. These measures, if applied correctly, will lead to a reduction in smartphones’ CO2 footprint equivalent to the retirement of 5 million thermal cars, the Commission estimates.
But what obligations are we really talking about? In its current state, as far as smartphones are concerned, the directive wants to oblige manufacturers and importers within 12 months of its entry into force to supply repair circuits with 15 essential spare parts for a minimum period of five years. Batteries, back panels, screens, photo sensors, buttons, speakers or even SIM card trays are mentioned. As an alternative to certain points, they can provide a guarantee that the device’s battery retains more than 83% capacity after 500 complete charge cycles and more than 80% after 1000 cycles. Similarly, smartphones sealed against dust and prolonged immersion in 1 m of water can escape certain obligations.
In addition to the parts, the repair documentation provided must be accurate and complete, in addition to being available for seven years. Spare parts (if the prices are to be “reasonable” and “proportionately” in order not to discourage repairs) must also be able to be delivered within a maximum of five working days after ordering. Repairs must be possible without tools, with tools readily available on the market or, if necessary, specific tools that must be supplied with the ordered spare parts.
The European Commission also wants to force manufacturers to eco-design more resilient smartphones, an important point when it comes to sustainability. To be approved on the market, the terminals must pass tests and prove their ability to withstand 100 “accidental fall” without additional protection, scratches (level 4 on the Mohs scale), dust and water splashes. The battery must retain at least 80% of its original capacity after 500 complete charge cycles.
Software support considered
As you know, the durability of a smartphone also depends on good software support, with regular updates over time. On this point, the Commission plans to oblige manufacturers to offer free security updates during the five years after a model is withdrawn from sale (and not from its marketing). So-called “functionality updates” must be offered for at least three years after a product’s withdrawal from the market. And that’s not all, this text wants to impose maximum implementation times: two months for security updates, four months for changes to the operating system.
Finally, the last point of interest mentioned, the arrival of new recyclability standards. Manufacturers will thus be required to publicly offer all information that allows smartphones to be disassembled to access the main components for recycling, for at least 15 years. Even better, they will have to specify in their documentation what amounts of rare minerals are present in each terminal. Ranges will thus make it possible to know how much cobalt, tantalum, neodymium or gold can potentially be recycled.
Apart from a few details, these new obligations will also apply to touchpads, mobile phones other than smartphones and cordless home phones.
in the right direction
Of course, changes could still be made to the text, as a reminder that it is in the drafting phase. The process is also open to feedback, and smartphone makers will, one imagines, have to do some lobbying to try to iron out certain angles. Be that as it may, such European legislation will inevitably raise – and quite a notch – industry standards in terms of eco-design (in addition to driving up the score of all smartphones on the famous repairability index).
It is not surprising that most European associations that campaign for a greener and more sensible digital welcome the initiative. In France, this is the case with the association HOP (Halte à l’obsolescence program), which in a reply sent in January 2021 supported this text. “72% of smartphones’ climate impact is due to their manufacturing. There is an urgent need to extend the life of these productssays HOP. By making smartphones and tablets more durable and easier to recycle, repair and remanufacture, these measures would not only reduce their overall life cycle impacts, but also the amount of e-waste generated as well as the valuable resources needed to manufacture them .”
The association nevertheless insists on certain points not mentioned, such as ensuring that the batteries can be easily replaced (for example by banning the use of glue), the need to ensure five years of monitoring at the OS level or consumer information and their involvement in the process. Another idea was defended, the establishment of a durability meter that would easily give an idea of the targeted lifespan of each product.