All small electronic devices should have the same charging port, says the new EU standard

All small electronic devices should have the same charging port, says the new EU standard

Check your trash drawer at home and you’ll likely find a tangled mess of electronic device chargers, many of them likely outdated. At the end of last week the European Union proposed a new regulation that would solve this problem by requiring that all small electronic devices (including phones, tablets, portable speakers and cameras) have the same type of charging port. All of these electronic devices sold in the EU are expected to transition to the USB-C standard within two years.

European officials say this universal standard not only increases convenience for consumers, but also reduces electronic waste. Critics of such measures, including Apple, which uses a proprietary charging port on its phones, say the move will stifle innovation. And when USB-C inevitably gives way to the next improved charging method, people will still have to invest in new chargers. The true impact of this law, however, may not be as simple as either party suggests.

“Based on what we know about what’s in the e-waste stream, the relative reduction in the amount of e-waste is likely to be relatively small due to chargers alone,” says Callie Babbitt, professor of sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology. , where he studies electronic waste. “But I think the biggest potential is that this is a good test case for requiring manufacturers to think about standardization and designs that are user-friendly, and then actually see if there is an increase in waste as they go. technology changes or if they actually see a reduction because consumers don’t replace products and chargers with the same frequency. ” American scientist spoke to Babbitt about the scale of the e-waste problem, how researchers want to solve it, and whether this new rule is a step in the right direction.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

How much e-waste are we throwing away, and why is this a problem?

Households in the United States discard about two million tons of electronics annually. And they are just families. If you start looking at businesses, corporations and industry, the number is estimated to possibly double. It is very important to recycle, but less so from the perspective of trying to prevent hazards from escaping into the environment, because over time we have been able to successfully design many of these hazards. The challenges associated with the electronics we discard are more related to what we are throwing away. We have invested enormous amounts of resources in production: we have extracted metals from all over the world, some from very vulnerable places from a social and ecological point of view. We have invested a lot of energy in refining those metals, manufacturing components and then assembling the products. [E-waste] it contains many precious things such as gold, rare earths, cobalt, lithium, things that are really important for our society. So when we discard something, instead of reusing or recycling it, we are wasting all those resources.

Will the move to a universal charging standard reduce e-waste?

There are two potential benefits of this strategy. The first is the direct benefit of [no longer] having to throw away a charger when you buy a new device and it is no longer compatible. The benefit is relatively small. If you look at electronics [households] discard in the United States, en masse, the vast majority of this is things like TVs, computers, printers, because those things are heavy and contain a lot of material and weight. So while we’re discarding a lot of phones, chargers, and stuff like that, they’re actually a relatively small part of the mass. This does not necessarily mean that they are harmless. They still contain precious materials with wiring often made of copper and aluminum, and then we’re coating them with a plastic, which has its own challenges. The biggest benefit could be more indirect – this is potentially something that could allow for a change in consumer behavior. If your charger still works, maybe this is also a sign that the product you have still works and you can keep using it for longer. And perhaps there could be some indirect benefit to consumers who continue to repair and extend the life of the products and components they already have, which is a change in mindset.

How can greater standardization have this indirect benefit of extending the life of electronic devices?

With standardized components, whether you want to repair or recycle electronics, all parts are the same. In my workshop, we have a huge bench full of screwdrivers and tools of all different sizes, shapes and types, because that’s what is needed to actually access the components within the electronics. The reason is that there is no design standardization, which means that if you are a company looking to work in the reuse and recycling industries, you have to spend more on labor, costs and supplies to actually do the really valuable work. We know that by standardizing parts, components and labeling, we can actually achieve many “circular economy” goals. The idea of ​​the circular economy is that we are trying to keep resources in use for as long as possible: we want to minimize the amount of resources we extract from the Earth and we want to minimize the amount of waste that we eventually recover in nature.

Could a universal charging standard hinder technological progress?

There is a balance between embracing the environmental benefits that can come from technological progress and, at the same time, following what we know to be very strong and effective circular economy design practices. Solutions [such as standardization] they must be agile enough to respond to technological advancement because this advancement can actually deliver many benefits on its own. And a great example of this can be seen in the change in the television industry. Twenty years ago, electronic waste in the United States was on the rise because people were discarding the big, square CRT TVs. They are extremely heavy, [with] lots of dangerous material, some hold up to five pounds [2.3 kilograms] lead for television and very difficult to recycle. And if you’re looking forward to where we are now, you can get a bigger, better display that uses far less energy and contains far fewer materials in the flat panel technology we have now.

What are some examples of effective e-waste regulations?

There are many different ways to get it. [For instance], you could set goals for recycled content and recyclability. The US usually takes a more voluntary approach than the EU. And a good example of this is what’s called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, which was created by stakeholders that truly span the entire electronics industry. The idea was to come up with a series of rating systems to actually evaluate the design of electronic products in terms of how recyclable they could be or how sustainable they could be. So manufacturers get credit for, for example, choosing material with recycled content rather than virgin material or making the product easily accessible for repair, among many other strategies. Many U.S. institutions, including, at some point, the federal government, as well as many universities, companies and municipalities, have actually written in their purchasing standards that any electronics purchased must have some level of certification from the [EPEAT] evaluation system. So even though it is a voluntary mechanism, there has been commercial pressure on manufacturers to actually participate in this and design products. [to be] more ecological.

The management of used electronics and e-waste is incredibly complex and no single policy will be able to address them all effectively. It will actually take a concerted effort with multiple stakeholders involved. Politics plays a fundamental role. Producers play a fundamental role. But at the same time, we must also invest in the development of new recycling technologies. We need to change the way products can be repaired. And we need to educate consumers on how to actually participate in the system. This is what it will take to truly achieve the circular economy goals for electronics.

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