70 kg of raw materials per device, rare metals with extremely polluting extraction processes, production lines that are far from neutral for the environment, 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 disastrous.
Without being miraculous, the most virtuous solution – pushed by the public authorities – is the extension of the duration of use of our telephones, associated with the establishment of a functional circular economy, in particular around the reconditioned. It is with this in mind that the European Commission has been working since the end of 2020 on a new directive aimed at forcing manufacturers to market smartphones and tablets designed to be more durable.
This initiative is part of the European Green Deal and the 2020 action plan for the circular economy. Developed for more than a year, it underwent three months of public consultations in 2021 and has just entered its final phase, the final drafting, before being presented for adoption before the Commission in the fourth quarter of 2022.
Towards more durable, repairable and recyclable smartphones
This text, which begins by proposing a balance sheet on the ecological impact of the smartphone and its premature renewal, will make new eco-design standards mandatory from which manufacturers will not be able to derogate if they wish to sell their devices in developing countries. EU. Phones that will have to be more durable, more repairable and more recyclable, limiting the amount of electronic waste generated. These measures, if properly applied, will produce a reduction in the carbon footprint of smartphones equivalent to the retirement of 5 million thermal cars, the Commission estimates.
But what obligations are we talking about exactly? In the current state, concerning smartphones, the directive wants to impose on manufacturers and importers, within 12 months after its entry into force, the provision of repair circuits of 15 essential spare parts for a minimum period of five years. Batteries, rear panels, screens, photo sensors, buttons, speakers or even SIM card drawers are mentioned. As an alternative to certain points, they may provide a guarantee that the device’s battery will retain more than 83% capacity after 500 complete charge cycles, and more than 80% after 1000 cycles. In the same way, smartphones sealed against dust and prolonged immersion in 1 m of water may 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 (whose prices must be “reasonable” and “proportionate” so as not to discourage repairs) must also be able to be delivered within a maximum of five working days after ordering. Repairs must be feasible without tools, with tools easily accessible on the market or, if necessary, specific tools which must be delivered with the spare parts ordered.
The European Commission also wants to force manufacturers to eco-design more resistant smartphones, an essential point when it comes to sustainability. Thus, to be authorized on the market, the terminals will have to pass tests and prove their ability to withstand 100 “accidental falls” without additional protection, to scratches (level 4 on Mohs scale), dust and splashing water. The battery must retain at least 80% of its original capacity after 500 complete charge cycles.
Software support taken into account
As we 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 following the withdrawal of a model from sale (and not from its marketing). So-called “functionality” updates must be offered for at least three years after the withdrawal of a product from the market. And that’s not all, this text wants to impose maximum deployment 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. Thus, manufacturers will be required to publicly offer all information allowing smartphones to be disassembled in order to access the main components with a view to recycling, for at least 15 years. Better still, they will have to specify in their documentation what quantities of rare minerals are present in each terminal. Ranges will thus make it possible to know how much cobalt, tantalum, neodymium or gold are potentially recyclable.
Apart from a few details, these new obligations will also apply to touch pads, mobile phones other than smartphones, as well as cordless home phones.
in the right direction
Of course, changes could still be made to the text which is, as a reminder, in the drafting phase. The procedure is also open to feedback and smartphone manufacturers must, one imagines, make lobbying efforts to try to smooth certain angles. Be that as it may, such European legislation would inevitably raise – and a good notch – the standards of the industry in terms of eco-design (in addition to propelling up the scores of all the smartphones on the famous repairability index).
Unsurprisingly, most European associations campaigning for a greener and more reasonable digital welcome the initiative. In France, this is the case of the HOP association (Stop planned obsolescence) which, in a response sent in January 2021supported this text. “72% of the climate impact of smartphones is due to their manufacture. There is an urgent need to extend the life of these productssays HOP. By making smartphones and tablets more durable and easier to reuse, repair and remanufacture, these measures would not only reduce their combined lifecycle 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 will be easily replaceable (by prohibiting the use of glue, for example), the need to ensure five years of monitoring at the OS level, or consumer information and their involvement in the process. Another idea defended, the establishment of a durability gauge that would easily give an idea of the lifespan targeted for each product.