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Calls Made to Reform EU’s Ecodesign Rules and Oust Planned Obsolescence

Hong Kong traders of electronics and other energy-related products will be interested in a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 31 May 2018 regarding the EU’s Ecodesign Directive, and comments received during a consultation held by the European Commission which ended on 4 June 2018. The parliamentary resolution has restated the necessity for existing legislation to be extended beyond the energy efficiency of products, to encompass areas such as waste generation, the release of micro-plastics, dangerous chemicals and material input. In essence, the objective of the EU is to answer the calls for a more circular economy by broadening the ecodesign rules.

It is increasingly argued that “built-in obsolescence” may be seen as one of the most substantial threats to the circular economy. “Built-in obsolescence” is felt to be practised by many leading manufacturers around the world in order to increase profits by creating designs which will inevitably cease to function. For instance, Apple is currently facing legal action in France as a result of the alleged intentional shortening of the lifespan of Apple designs through methods such as diminishing battery life and software updates curtailing the efficiency of the product. Under French law, it is a crime to intentionally shorten the lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it.

In consequence, Apple’s and other companies’ alleged adoption of the process of “built-in obsolescence” has brought the practice more into the limelight and has alerted manufacturers to the potential flaws in their designs, which further lends to the ongoing push to reform ecodesign.

A European Commission consultation, which closed on 4 June 2018, brought to light a number of issues considered to be a matter of urgency. These revolve around the transition to a more sustainable, low carbon economy with a view to manufacturing more environmentally friendly products. The ‘take-make-use-throw away’ ideology is believed by environmentalists to be costing consumers money and depleting the world of its natural resources. The European Commission’s Environment Directorate maintains that many products are designed in a way which neglects the circularity aspect, and they “cannot be easily repaired, upgraded or remanufactured, resulting in premature obsolescence.

In this connection, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is one of the organisations canvassing for more rapid identification and regulation of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHCs) that are listed under the REACH regulation. In their statement, the organisation argued that “products already on the EU market should be screened for toxins, so that they can safely be treated and the recycling of hazardous toxics is prevented.

As a result of technological developments in the past few decades, the complexity of waste has significantly increased. It is now widely argued that more preventative steps must be taken in order to ensure products fall in line with the circular economy. Furthermore, the group questioned the validity of the commitment made by the European Commission to produce an EU strategy towards a non-toxic environment that should be in place “by 2018” according to the EU's 7th Environmental Action Programme.

Moreover, campaigners regarded the proposition of legislation to limit the presence of toxic chemicals in plastics and other materials as a valid objective of the European Commission. Campaigners believe that the European Commission should consider proposing legislation that would look to improving design and boost recycling amid wider circular economy plans.

Studies show that an average of 480 kg of municipal waste was generated per person in Member States during 2016, which is an improvement on the peak average of 527 kg in 2002. By developing the set standard for materials used during the manufacturing process, these figures for the waste generated could potentially drop further in the coming years.

In order to deter manufacturers from ignoring the environmental effects of the design process, Zero Waste Europe, another environmental body, has argued that manufacturers should be made to pay for unsustainable designs by mainstreaming the use of extended producer responsibility schemes and levying taxes on virgin raw materials. Manufactures including those exporting from Hong Kong, would, in such cases, face barriers and increased costs in the design process. Representatives of Zero Waste Europe stated that the lack of innovation and conformity can be truly incentivised “by introducing a modulated fee that rewards good design and service provision of products, while penalising linear products.” The group also called for a per capita limit on the level of raw material use.

The resolution adopted by the European Commission is yet to be translated into a legislative procedure. The information regarding this particular debate on ecodesign rules can be found in the European Commission consultation documents.

As for its response to the recent consultation, the European Commission plans to publish a communication regarding product policy and the circular economy in the first quarter of 2019. Hong Kong traders may like to know that the Commission will build on a range of existing policies, which include ecodesign, the EU plastics strategy, and the product environmental footprint (PEF) initiative.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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