Thursday

8th Dec 2016

Opinion

Where EU ecodesign plan falls down

  • The average lifetime of a washing machine has fallen by a third between 2000 and 2010 (Photo: Rob D)

The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan committed to use the Ecodesign Directive to make products more readily recyclable, repairable and reusable. The European Commission announced on Tuesday (8 November) their new ecodesign priorities, but will they give us better products?

Up until now ecodesign policy has been focused on energy and has resulted in huge energy savings and cost reductions by driving up design standards. This has saved households €490 in energy bills each year.

But consumers across Europe still have smartphones with screens that break too easily and washing machines that break down too early, costing them money and creating unnecessary waste.

 

Ecodesign can help. The new report by Green Alliance shows how design changes can make a big difference. They would give us more durable, long lasting products sooner, ones that can be easily repaired and upgraded instead of thrown away and replaced.

The report analyses smartphones, washing machines and solar panels, to see what changes could be made.

Half of us have cracked our smartphone screens at least once, in fact 21 percent of us have a broken screen right now. That’s not a huge surprise, since standard glass screens tend to break four out of every five times they are dropped. But the best glass on the market can survive up to 80 percent of falls. And Motorola is using genuinely unbreakable screens in two of its phone models. It’s also possible to make screens cheaper and more easy to replace: changing an iPhone screen takes 60 minutes, but a Fairphone 2 screen can be swapped in one minute, at a lower cost.

According to surveys, we expect our washing machines to last around 12 years. But the average lifetime of a washing machine has actually fallen by a third between 2000 and 2010, so we have to replace them every seven years, with one in six machines failing in its first five years.

Repairing them is a bigger nuisance and more expensive than it needs to be, as most machines use unreplaceable bearings and paddles. This means that the whole drum has to be removed, costing over €200. But replaceable bearings and paddles can be replaced at a tenth of the cost.

Better designs don’t cost more either, as more durable machines have a lower annual cost over their lifetime.

The uptake of solar panels is projected to rise fast over the coming years. They contain critical materials for the economy but, at present, less than two percent of the value of the materials in each panel is recovered by recycling when it comes to the end of its life.

That is because solar cells, the most valuable component, are embedded in non-melting plastics, so they can’t be recovered through standard recycling processes.

Toasters and hair dryers

Using thermoplastics to seal panels instead means the cells can be recovered by melting the plastic away, rather than crushing them. It is also possible to increase panel reuse by designing them with detachable frames and glass to allow easier disassembly.

These simple design choices, and others set out in the report, could be made now. They don’t need new technology or different business models, just market rules so that manufacturers compete on quality and are not rewarded for product failure.

The commission’s product list for new measures on ecodesign includes building automation controls, hand dryers, lifts, solar panels, refrigerated containers, and kettles. So we should expect improvements for these products.

But other household items that were originally on the list, such as toasters and hair dryers, have been excluded, whilst mobile phones and washing machines will also have to wait. And that means we must continue to tolerate cracked screens and unrepairable appliances.

It’s good news that the European Commission has announced its plans to develop ecodesign. But we need to move much faster towards a circular economy, and apply them to a much wider range of everyday products, to give consumers a fairer deal.

Simon Wilson represents Green Alliance, the UK environmental think-tank, in Brussels.

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