The time is right for EU policy-makers to take measures to ensure products placed on the market are designed to last and be repaired.
Europe’s ‘take-make-use-throw’ economy is costing consumers money and depleting the world of finite resources. Every day we buy products that don’t last as long as we would like.
Cracked smartphone screens, weak laptop batteries, faulty printers. We’d like to fix them, but instead end up replacing them because repair costs are too high and spare parts are not made easily available by manufacturers.
The current situation is unsustainable for governments and businesses that are highly dependent on virgin raw materials imported from far-away countries, despite solutions already available in Europe to improve repair, reuse and recycling.
The good news is that we have the means to reverse this trend through better product policy.
Look no further, Europe already has a solution
With 80% of the environmental impacts of products determined at design stage, product design has the potential to increase repairability, durability and recyclability of products.
Part of the EU legislation on product design known as Ecodesign and Energy Labelling has already set out durability requirements for certain products such as vacuum cleaner motors and light bulbs. But it has so far mainly focused on making fridges, TVs and other appliances more energy efficient.
Given its success, why not include more requirements to make products that last longer and are easily reparable and recyclable?
The Ecodesign Directive gradually removes from the market the least efficient products by setting standards that demand a certain level of performance. Meanwhile, the Energy Labelling regulation pulls consumers towards the best products by giving them an impartial A to G ranking based on their energy efficiency.
Through these laws, the EU has already succeeded in cutting carbon emissions and energy bills.
The European Commission estimates that by 2020 every home in Europe will see their energy bills reduced by nearly €500 per year. Greenhouse gas emissions will also be cut by 319 megatonnes per year, that’s equal to taking about seven million cars off the road.
This is one of Europe’s success stories through which we now have the opportunity to achieve even greater benefits in terms of resource efficiency and climate change mitigation.
By introducing minimum durability requirements on the products and key components, such as making smartphone screens shock resistant, policy makers can ensure products that are placed on the EU market last longer.
Similarly, Ecodesign should ensure that consumers can easily replace, repair or upgrade essential parts of the products such as door gaskets for refrigerators or smartphone batteries. Ecodesign requirements could help make products easier to disassemble and recycle by avoiding combining different materials, particularly plastics, and using hazardous chemicals.
This seems obvious, but willingly or not, some manufacturers may design products with a limited useful life and with key components that are impossible to replace in order to generate more sales or simply as a standard practice.
Another issue is that consumers are not even made aware of the durability and repairability options of different products on the market. In other words, consumers are prevented from making an informed choice between a durable product and one that does the same job but is likely to break after a few months or years.
That is why, alongside improved design, the EU Energy Label should also be expanded to include information on product life expectancy, repairability and the quality of materials used in products.
Towards a circular economy
Better product policy can help Europe transition towards a circular economy, where waste is prevented and products are designed to be reused or recycled.
In both its circular economy strategy and Ecodesign Work Plan, the European Commission also called for new Ecodesign requirements to reduce the wasteful use of resources in the manufacturing industry and the environmental impact of certain products.
By increasing the amount of repairable products, reusable materials as well as recycling rates, Europe can generate almost one million new jobs in the remanufacturing and recycling sectors and help save over €70 billion a year in societal costs. In terms of job creation, this would translate into one in six of the unemployed youth in the EU coming back into work.
Resource efficiency standards can also significantly help reduce CO2 emissions by saving huge amounts of energy compared to extracting virgin resources, while reducing EU dependency on imports and promoting local innovation.
The economic and environmental benefits of a circular economy in Europe are well known. Now the question is whether EU policy-makers are willing to speed up this transition by taking EU product policy to the next level.
This opinion piece was produced by the Coolproducts campaign and was first published in Euractiv on February 8.