EU should increase smartphones' durability to cut emissions

The move will result in more than 2 million tonnes of CO2 savings

Extending the lifespan of smartphones by just one year would lead to a significant reduction of waste and greenhouse gases in the European Union, a report from environmental groups said on Wednesday, urging new EU rules to focus on the climate costs of manufacturing smartphones and other electronic appliances, instead of the efficiency of their power consumption, as is largely the case now.

Published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an association of dozens of non-governmental organizations, the study found that if smartphones, notebooks, washing machines and vacuum cleaners were used for just another year, the resulting drop in carbon emissions would be 4 million tonnes, similar to that caused by removing all cars from Denmark, a state of nearly 6 million people, the report states. The study also estimated that extending the lifetime of the EU’s stock of these products by five years would in addition save almost 10 million tonnes of emissions (CO2) annually by 2030, which is equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the roads for a year.

As stated by the EEB, these high figures are due to the vast amounts of energy and resources involved in producing and distributing new products as well as disposing of old ones.

“The climate impact of our disposable smartphone culture is far too high. We can’t afford to keep replacing them every few years. We need products that last longer and can be repaired if they break,” said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, policy ifficer for the circular economy at the EEB.

Of the electronics assessed, the activists found that smartphones, by far, had the largest climate impact. According to data the full life cycle of smartphones sold in Europe is responsible for 14 million tonnes of carbon emissions, more than those produced in a year in Latvia, which has a population of 2 million. This means that a smartphone would have to be used for more than two centuries to compensate for the emissions generated for its production, the study added, while the optimal lifetime of a vacuum cleaner should be around 20 years.

In the meantime, the more than 200 million smartphones sold in Europe every year have an average lifespan of only three years, with the production, distribution and disposal phases accounting for the largest amount of emissions. Laptops, on the other hand, last about six years, while washing machines and vacuum cleaners 11.4 and 6.5 respectively.

The EEB thus urges towards the “right to repair” for EU citizens, which would entail new requirements for appliance-makers to use more durable materials in their products, and make them easier to repair.  The idea coincides with the growth of the Right to Repair movement in Europe, which is aimed at countering planned obsolescence - the practice whereby products are poorly designed, impossible or too expensive to repair, and are prematurely replaced.

"As public support for longer lasting products and climate action grows, we have an opportunity to radically rethink the way our products are designed and produced. The EU can be a leader on this front," Schweitzer added.

The call comes as NGOs recently succeeded in pushing for EU-wide regulation in that regard focused on extending the lifespan of a small group of products including TVs, fridges, washing machines, dishwashers and lighting products. As of 2021, manufacturers will have to ensure that these products can be easily disassembled and will have to make spare parts and repair information available to professional repairers. The new rules are expected to be officially adopted by the European Commission in September or October 2019.

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