EU commission may legislate on smartphone repairability

The European Union is inviting feedback on its Circular Economy Action Plan to ensure that smartphone repairability means energy efficient, durable, easy to repair, software upgradeable, and easy to reuse or recycle at end-of-life.

In other words, designing mobile phones and tablets to be sustainable. To say that this proposed legislation horrifies smartphone makers may be an understatement. They are pushing for industry-self-regulation- the fox minding the chickens – and we all know how that ends up.

The legislation should be an unavoidable global reality. The EU has already mandated the use of USB-C chargers, started implementing an EU-wide take-back scheme to return or sell old mobile phones, tablets and chargers and implementing ‘right to repair’ policies, including the manufacturers’ obligation to provide most parts and software updates for five years.

This principle will encompass printers, cartridges, and other electronic devices. It also encompasses mandatory battery recycling and phasing out single-use batteries.

Simply put, it must conform to sell a brand/model in the EU.

How long does a smartphone last? Not long enough.

At present, smartphone replacement tends to be between two and three years. Not because they are obsolete, battery life declines, and a lack of operating system upgrades/security patches forces users to upgrade. The real lifespan of a smartphone is well over five years.

Manufacturers’ are guilty of shortening the upgrade cycle with ‘must-have’ marketing (like the highly useless 5G and camera spec race-to-the-top), trade-in programs, and time payment that locks the user into an earlier update.

The EU has stated that it will mandate that the most common parts like battery, screen, back cover, USB-C ports, seals, updated operating system, firmware or software must be available for five years. In addition, the manufacturer must ensure the reasonable cost of spare parts and easy repair, including manuals and repair codes.

What are the specific issues that the EU is aiming at?

Areas for potential regulatory intervention include:

  • Drop resistance standards
  • Mandatory IP rating
  • Mandatory battery accessibility and longevity (using removable batteries and ones with longer charge cycles)
  • Availability of software/firmware/operating system updates
  • Product durability in general – use of durable finishes on screens, buttons, and backs
  • Easy product disassembly (not the current hot melt glue mess)
  • Availability of priority spare parts for five years
  • Data deletion and transfer functionality
  • Mandatory provision of appropriate information for users, repairers, and recyclers

These findings are part of a preparatory study on behalf of the Commission.

The EU understands smartphone repairability will have economic consequences

The impact on users (e.g., prices, demand, and social costs) and industry (profitability, investment level, etc.) will be assessed, covering the whole value chain of the products in question (original equipment manufacturers, repair/upgrade operators, recycling sector, etc.).

In short, even if prices are driven up, the devices will last longer and produce less e-Waste.

The EU claims its better for the environment

Preliminary estimates indicate that a market with more environmentally-friendly products could have tangible effects on environmental impact. For example:

  • Extending the average device lifetime by just one year could reduce the climate impact by 25%
  • Up to another 20% reduction in environmental impacts through other measures, such as improved information on the impacts of the manufacturing phase
  • Up to 30% reduction in raw material consumption by improving the material efficiency.

CyberShack’s view – Let’s hope the EU smartphone repairability move goes viral

The EU’s motivation is to help save the planet, but in doing so, it has ‘outed’ one of the most manipulative industries that deliberately make it hard to hold onto a perfectly good smartphone. Not all users can afford to access the Telco or finance contract lock-ins where you get a new phone every two years – or more often if you want.

We have been reviewing smartphones since the late 90s. There was nothing wrong with the Nokia Feature Phones of the noughties. My Auntie is still using a 20-year-old Nokia Banana phone with a user-replaceable battery that costs about $30 every 4-5 years. It is refreshing that you can still get Nokia feature phones.

We can tell you that for at least the past five years, Android and iOS smartphone advances have been evolutionary – not revolutionary. A sophisticated piece of electronics should last a decade. Except that manufacturers want you to upgrade (to make money). It is a self-fulfilling, vicious circle creating mountains of e-Waste.

What needs to be done

Battery replacement would be a great place to start. For example, you can get a Lithium-ion battery with 200, 400, 800 or more recharge cycles (from 0-100%). Most manufacturers opt for cheaper 200 or 400 cycles meaning 2-4 years of life – planned obsolescence forcing you to get a new phone.

OPPO has invented a Smart Battery Health Algorithm and Battery Health Engine – a dedicated battery management chip that will give its next generation 1600 full charge cycles. But equally, it has stated that a removable battery would spell the end of water resistance and thin phones.

Manufacturers now realise they must provide some Android OS upgrades and security patches (read What are the official Android OS and Security update policies? (guide), but even the better ones don’t go far enough.

Let’s hope the EU smartphone repairability move gets traction.