In the context of the 2020 European New Circular Economy Plan, the Electronics & ICT industry has been identified as one of the seven intensive-resources sector that need to implement a Circular Economy given its environmental impact and circularity potential.
For many years, the sector has been experiencing strong growth resulting into one of the fast growing waste stream, so called e-waste. Compounding the issue is e-waste’s low recycling rate. In 2019, only 17%1 of global e-waste was collected and properly recycled, which means that 44 million metric tonnes of e-waste, was either placed in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a substandard way. Poor treatment of waste has three major consequences: pollution of the environment, health deterioration for the people handling this waste, high CO2 emissions.
E-waste contains many substances that are harmful for the environment if not dealt properly and consequently can pollute water sources and food chains. For instance, circuit boards or cathode ray tubes from old TVs contain lead, chromium or mercury, which, if they are not well decontaminated, could pollute soils heavily.
Besides, in many countries where informal e-waste processing takes place with the aim of recovering valuable metals such as copper and gold, workers –including women and children- are exposed to toxic substances during the melting process which is carried out at dumping grounds.
Last but not least, according to the World Economic Forum, the manufacture of a tonne of laptops could emit 10 tonnes of CO2, mostly during the production process rather the product lifetime. That is why establishing low carbon manufacturing processes by using refurbished or recycled component is so important to limit carbon emissions.
In the European Union, it is estimated that less than 40%2 of electronic waste is recycled and in order to improve the situation, the Commission is set to introduce a ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’ to establish a level-playing field where products sold in the EU are designed in such a way that they contain more recycled materials and have longer lifespans.
Implementing a Circular Economy could help solve these three issues, causing as of today a high quantity of e-waste. Indeed, improving product durability and reparability are at the heart of the Circular Economy process and remains likely the best lever the industry has at its disposal, not only to reduce the amount of e-waste generated by electronics devices but also to reduce the need for newly mined mineral resources and incremental carbon emissions.
This is the reason why the EU is revising its legislation to make it more stringent.
In its New Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU Commission has highlighted 5 research focuses:
- Implementation of an Eco-design Directive so that devices are designed for energy efficiency and durability, reparability, upgradability, maintenance, reuse and recycling.
- Defining the sector as a priority for implementing the “right to repair”;
- Introducing measures on chargers for mobile phones an similar devices (common charger) allowing to decouple the purchase of chargers from the purchase of new devices;
- Improving the collection and treatment of e-waste, including exploring options for an EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back electronic devices;
- Reviewing EU rules on restrictions of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment.
A key initiative of the European Commission regarding Circular Economy for the electronics industry was taken in Q1 2021 when the New Eco-design regulation entered into force. This new legislation widens the 2009 Eco-design Directive beyond energy-related products, in particular by promoting circularity, which current eco-certification standards have fallen short of. Thus, in the EPEAT label3, upgradeability and reparability are not required criteria to obtain the label while they definitely have a role to play in making products more eco-friendly. As of today, the Eco-design regulation is only applicable for displays (including TVs) and servers but aims to include the broadest possible range of products, such as smartphones and laptops, which are still being discussed.
The new Ecodesign rules will be underpinned by new obligations for manufacturers and especially a new “Right to repair”, which consists for companies in:
- making most spare parts and repair manuals available to professional repairers for several years after retiring the product from the market;
- ensuring the delivery of the spare parts within 15 working days. Spare parts can be replaced with the use of commonly available tools and without permanent damage to the product;
- making the latest available version of the firmware available at a ‘fair’ cost;
- ensuring that joining, fastening or sealing techniques do not prevent the disassembly for repair or reuse purposes of a number of components (data storage devices, memory, etc.).
So far, we note that the regulation does not address the pricing of spare parts, often considered as a key barrier for products to be repaired in practice. Notwithstanding the different product categories or markets served, we believe these guidelines serve as a good practice baseline and we have been using them to assess the companies’ current practices around eco-design and communication around product longevity toward customers.
||WHAT IS THE FRENCH REPARABILITY INDEX?
France became the first country to use an official reparability index since January 2021. The display of the reparability index is now mandatory at the point of sale for five categories of products : smartphones, laptops, televisions, washing machines and lawnmowers.
This reparability index is a score out of 10 that informs the consumer on the level of reparability of the product. Buying a product with a good reparability index means buying a product easy to repair and consequently reducing the risk to buy a new one in case of failure. It also means protecting the environment as reparability prevents from extracting new materials, producing new products, increase CO2 emissions, etc.
The reparability index is based on four main criteria:
- The availability of advice on use and maintenance
- The availability of technical documentation
- The disassembly of the product
- The availability and price of spare parts.
Interestingly, the index takes into account the price of spare parts, unlike what is done by the EU.
During our 2020 Circular Economy Engagement Campaign, we interviewed and assessed the Circular Economy practices of seven companies in the sector. These companies, based either in North America or Asia, are operating globally and importantly operate in Europe. Hereafter are developed the main observations and recommendations at the end of this first year of campaign.