The blind spots of the new European agreement on “removable” smartphone batteries

Will removable batteries on smartphones make a comeback on the market? This is what a new European agreement on battery rules seems to be aiming for. But the text, which offers interesting advances in terms of repairability, also leaves some critical points unresolved.

Concretely, the agreement reached on December 10 wants to make sure that “portable device batteries [soient] designed in such a way that consumers can easily remove and replace them themselves.“On paper, therefore, everything seems to suggest a return to removable batteries on our smartphones, tablets, headphones and connected watches. But nothing in the text specifies what degree of “ease” this operation should take.

Tools “basic” to define

When the directive was presented in March 2022the text only proposed that “portable batteries used in appliances […] are designed so that they can be removed and replaced easily and safely with basic tools that are commonly available“. So it remains to know what are the tools “basic” which the European Commission talks about. Today, to replace a battery, most of the time you need at least a heat gun, precision screwdrivers and solvent. So let’s hope that all these tools are not considered as objects “commonly available” by Brussels.

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The other black point of the text concerns the availability of spare parts. While future European rules will require spare batteries to be made available for at least five years after the last model of a device has been sold, no details have been given on the price of these spare parts. The price of components, a critical aspect to encourage repairability, is very poorly taken into account by the European directives on the right to repairability.

The devil is in the details

Collective Right to repair Europe (which includes among others HOP, iFixit and BackMarket) also regrets that the products potentially used “in wet condition” are for the moment spared from these new constraints. “This exemption is based on baseless claims, as there are already many products on the market that operate in wet conditions with easily replaceable batteries, such as toothbrushes, shavers, electric bicycles, power tools and underwater flashlights“, writes the association. The fear being that certain connected watches or audio headsets may escape future obligations.

At last, the european environmental bureau also calls on the EU to toughen the rules on “due diligence policy” that this new directive would create. Supposed “address social and environmental risks related to the sourcing, processing and trading of raw materials“, this obligation only concerns the main raw minerals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite. For the NGO, this policy should also be extended to the energy supply to avoid building mobiles with fossil fuels from installations that are not very ecological or ethical.

Parliament and Council still need to formally approve the deal before it can enter into force. The directive is obviously good news for the right to repairability and many positive points are already written in the text, but the associations which campaign for a more sober digital fear that the devil is hiding in the details. Once the directive is adopted, manufacturers will have three and a half years to comply.

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