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Moving towards a more sustainable, circular economy, new EU rules make products that last the law

a "thank you" bag
Illustration by Nate Merritt

Soon, the European Union may pass a precedent-setting law that aims to make products last longer and be easier to repair, upgrade, and recycle, and in an effort to make the EU’s economy more circular, sustainable, and energy-efficient.

The framework is dubbed ‘Ecodesign’ and on Thursday, the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) adopted its position on revising the framework, with 68 members voting in favor of the new regulatory proposal, 8 abstaining, and only 12 against.

The rules, which will be adopted during July 2023 to be negotiated through the EU’s Parliament to determine its final legislative shape, would enact two key provisions.

First, it bans the destruction of unsold textiles and electronic appliances, and second, it bans premature obsolescence of products. So, not only can companies not destroy what they don’t sell (a very common practice among industries, most predominantly in fashion, which deliberately destroys billions worth of clothing a year) but they can’t limit the lifetime of a product through design features.

“It’s time to end the “take, make, dispose” model which is so harmful to our planet, our health, and our economy, said, Alessandra Moretti, an ENVI member who is a part of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, in a statement.

“This law will ensure that new products are designed in a way that brings benefits to all, respects our planet’s boundaries, and protects the environment. “

Planned obsolescence is a practice that major technology companies have been accused of multiple times in recent years. In fact, right now, France is currently investigating Apple for its alleged 'planned obsolescence' of smartphones, because a complaint filed by an organization called Halt Planned Obsolescence (HOP) accuses Apple of restricting repair so phones go out of date at a planned time, and consumers are forced to buy new ones.

The company has been accused of the practice multiple times: last year in France, earlier this year in South Korea, and in May in the United Kingdom. A big case in 2017 dubbed ‘Batterygate’ led to a $500 settlement over the Right to Repair, giving consumers a $25 compensation, and in 2021, consumers in Chile received a $50 compensation over a similar lawsuit that resulted in a $3.4 million settlement.

Now, in France, HOP is calling on the U.S. tech giant “to guarantee the right to repair devices under the logic of real circular economy.” While Apple maintains that it provides Right to Repair services — launching “self-service repair” in 2021, consumers retort that there are still too many hoops to jump through. The EU’s new rules, which are a part of the “Green Deal” a March 2022-era circular economy package, could require companies to take a different, more proactive approach.

The ENVI rules would require available software updates, consumables, spare parts, and accessories for an appropriate period. It states “Products should also be easy to repair and consumers should have access to repair guidelines.”

On top of that, products will, like people, have to have a “product passport” to travel to shelves. According to the committee, the passport will be required to contain “accurate and up-to-date information,” to “enable consumers and businesses to make informed choices when purchasing products, facilitate repairs and recycling, and increase transparency about the environmental impact of what they are buying.”

Ideally, consumers would be able to compare these passports on an online platform so if one company, for example, reports an easier-to-repair phone or better recycling program, a consumer may decide to purchase the most planet-friendly option.

In terms of the product destroying measure, companies will have to report the annual percentage of products they’ve discarded and why, and the Commission will use that data to determine which products will be a part of the ban.

Already, however, one year after the law’s introduction, unsold textiles, footwear, and electronics will be banned from being destroyed.

This isn’t the first kind of anti-waste law, as France already has a law that bans the destruction of unsold non-food products, which was groundbreaking when it began in 2016.

While the French law was historic, it's been criticized for not ensuring all stores comply. As the EU’s law would be much more expansive, and cross industries, EU regulators will have their work cut out for them.

In the EU, 5.8 million tonnes of textiles are discarded every year, which is approximately 11 kilograms or 24 pounds per person. This is either put into a landfill or incinerated. While the largest source is from consumers, regulation concerning the lifetime of products could also put a dent in post-consumer waste, when a disproportionate amount of clothes thrown away are poorly made ‘fast-fashion’ items.

Plus, when the fashion industry overproduces products by 30-40% each season to keep up with and make the trends, it contributes about 10% of all global carbon emissions and is the world’s second-worst offender when it comes to water and plastic pollution.

Thus, by banning the destruction of unsold products, the biggest perpetrators of the practice may think twice about their overproduction.

Outside of textiles, other products that will be prioritized through the legislation are iron, steel, and aluminum, aka the building blocks of many electronics, as well as furniture, tires, detergents, paints, lubricants, and chemicals, none of which have the best environmental track record in terms of waste and recyclability.

“Sustainable products will become the norm,” Moretti said, adding that it allows “consumers to save energy, make repairs easier, and make smart environmental choices when they shop, saving themselves money in the long run."


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