The European Union wants product designers, manufacturers and consumers to move towards a circular economy, and is proposing new rules to trigger that transition
A revolution in the way many consumer products are designed, produced and used could be on the horizon, if the European Union delivers on a series of proposals outlined at the start of December.
The proposals were part of a wide-ranging EU strategy on the circular economy. To go circular, the strategy says, products must be designed to last longer before being binned by consumers. Failing that, products should be more easily repairable and recyclable, so they can be made into new products once their useful lives are over.
The strategy should reduce waste volumes, especially for tricky-to-handle products, such as consumer electronics containing toxic chemicals. It should also make it easier for EU countries to meet their household waste recycling targets, which under the strategy would rise to 65% by 2030. And more recovery of resources, such as precious metals from smartphones, will reduce the EU's reliance on often unstable countries for raw materials.
Impacts on companies
The first main way in which the strategy could affect companies will be through the setting of mandatory ecodesign requirements that products must meet to be sold in the EU. There is already an EU Ecodesign Directive, under which the bloc's member states agree product standards. So far, this has mainly been used to set energy consumption standards.
Chloé Fayole, an ecodesign policy officer with the European Environmental Citizens' Organisation for Standardisation, says the new strategy will shift product standards “from purely energy efficiency to a broader scope”. Manufacturers might have to meet requirements on how easy their products are to repair, upgrade and recycle, and on how long they should last in use.
Small changes can make a big difference in this respect, Fayole says. The EU has already adopted one regulation with a product durability requirement – for vacuum cleaners. This includes an obligation for hoover hoses to be “still usable after 40,000 oscillations under strain”.
That might sound technical but, Fayole says, one of the most common reasons for people to throw away their vacuum cleaners is because the hose splits, even if the vacuum cleaner itself continues to function perfectly well. More durable hoses mean longer-lived vacuum cleaners. Over the next few years, manufacturers can expect many more product types to be assessed under the Ecodesign Directive for issues such as durability.
The plan is unlikely to result in radical reinventions of products, because the best-in-class manufacturers are likely to find that they already meet the requirements. “Ecodesign is about removing the worst products from the market,” Fayole says.
A second way in which the EU strategy might affect companies could be through greater obligations to provide information. Currently white goods, for example, carry energy efficiency labels. This could be extended so that information on durability and other product characteristics is also displayed. The EU strategy adds that obligations for companies on “availability of repair information and spare parts” will also be considered.
Thirdly, there are promises in the strategy about cracking down on “planned obsolescence,” or the design of products so that they break down after a certain time and have to be replaced. A testing programme to detect planned obsolescence will be established, the strategy says.
Ian Blackman of the International Institute of Obsolescence Management, which mainly deals with obsolescence in the likes of aeroplanes and deep-sea drilling equipment, says consumer products often have shorter lives than necessary because companies “are cutting costs and cutting corners” – for example, using cheap components in electronics.
But consumers must also play a part. Products such as smartphones, for example, are often discarded early because their owners prize fashion over functionality and want to move on to the next trending thing, Blackman says. The EU strategy is intended to help consumers, as well as companies, change their ways.EthicsWatch waste recycling hazardous chemicals circular economy European Union