Will the European Commission’s new ecodesign plans give us better products?

Electrodomsticos de cocina sobre un fondo neutroThe EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan committed to use the Ecodesign Directive to make the products we use more readily recyclable, repairable and reusable. The European Commission yesterday announced 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 £436 (€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 from Green Alliance shows how design changes can make a big difference. They would give us more durable, longer 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.

Too many products are too low quality
Half of us have cracked our smartphone screens at least once, in fact 21 per cent 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 per cent 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 now have to replace them every seven years, with one in six machines failing in its first five years. And 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 per cent of the value of the materials in each panel is recovered by recycling when it comes to the end of its life. That’s because solar cells, the most valuable component, are embedded in non-melting plastics, so they can’t be recovered through standard recycling processes. Using thermoplastics to seal panels instead means the cells can be recovered by melting the plastic away, rather than crushing them. Panel reusability can also be improved by designing them with detachable frames and glass to allow easier disassembly.

Market rules should cover more household items
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 that mean manufacturers compete on quality and are not rewarded for product failure.

The Commission’s product list for new measures on ecodesign, announced yesterday, includes building automation controls, hand dryers, lifts, solar panels, refrigerated containers and kettles. So we can 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 put up with 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 wider range of everyday products, to give consumers a fairer deal.

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