Report highlights potential of ecodesign as EU promises action

The European Commission has promised action to make products more durable, repairable, and recyclable as a new study shows just how smart design can transform products.

UK environmental think tank Green Alliance has published the study, ‘Better products by design’, to highlight that easily broken, hard-to-repair products frustrate consumers, cost more money and create unnecessary waste. It urges the European Commission to extend its ecodesign rules to more consumer products as a matter of priority, calling for the EU to create a regulatory environment that could help make a change and empower consumers.

Report highlights potential of ecodesign as EU promises action The analysis shows that ecodesign could and should create smartphone screens that are less easy to break, washing machines that can be fixed rather than replaced and solar panels that can be reused rather than crushed at the end of their lives.

It also suggests that ecodesign standards offer the double advantages of better and cheaper products for consumers, while saving valuable resources, and states that the EU’s Circular Economy Package should set ecodesign standards to ensure better products.

The publication of the study comes just after the European Commission (EC) announced (on 8 November) that it would be bringing forward plans to broaden ecodesign beyond energy saving to cover resource efficiency and apply ecodesign to products ‘where there is a clear benefit for European consumers in terms of energy and cost savings, job creation and revenue benefits for European industry, and energy or resource efficiency which contributes to the fight against climate change and the transition to a circular economy’.

This will include building automation controls, hand dryers, lifts, solar panels, refrigerated containers, and kettles, but everyday devices such as smartphones, toasters and hair dryers were left off the list.

‘More political ownership’ of ecodesign process

Commenting on the new approach, the EC’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said: “What we decided… was that given past experience with ecodesign, we should create more political ownership of the whole process, because sometimes at the level of commissioners… in the past there was surprise at what had been decided at the level of the services and then presented to the outside world, and we want to avoid that. We want to make sure that when we come up with our plans the political ownership is in the hands of every single member of the college.

The Circular Economy Package, created by the European Commission and currently undergoing debate within the EU, purports to provide ‘concrete steps covering the whole lifecycle of products and not just the waste phase’. The package, published in December 2015, included an Ecodesign Working Plan for 2015-2017, which would aim to address energy efficiency in products but also repairability, durability, upgradability, and recyclability. However, the plan has not yet been published, even though it is almost 2017.

Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, added: “Ecodesign is part of the circular economy. A circular economy is much more productive in creating added value, which is important both for financing society and strengthening the social model within the European market economy. It is about creating a better single market which is more durable, more profitable and more sustainable.”

Speaking about the obstacles that need to be overcome, he said: “We need to empower consumers, and that means that we have to make it possible for consumers to make conscious choices. If they want to save money, energy and nature it should be possible, and ecodesign and energy labelling are the tools for improving awareness.”

The front page of the 'Better products by design' report
Breakdown of the study

The EC’s assessment showed that through ecodesign, consumers could save nearly €500 per year per household on energy bills, and could add an extra €55 billion (£49 billion) in yearly revenues for European businesses. It said that the energy savings by 2020, thanks to ecodesign, would be equivalent to Italy’s annual primary energy consumption, and would help to deliver nearly half of the EU’s energy savings targets by 2020, and one quarter of the EU’s emissions reduction targets by 2020.

In order to develop the ecodesign environment, the Green Alliance study called on the EU to set the following requirements:

  • More durable or repairable smartphone screens with a minimum of 3.5 years of software support (British consumers spend £1.1 billion on fixing broken screens. Keeping a phone going for just one more year can cut its overall carbon footprint by a third.)
  • Modular design so that items such as washing machines can be replaced using repairable and detachable parts. (The average lifetime of a washing machine fell by a third between 2000 and 2010, and if they lasted as long as consumers expect, Europeans would save £3.6 billion and generate 900,000 fewer tonnes of e-waste annually.)
  • Components designed to last at least 10 years.
  • Improved sealants and plastics that can facilitate silicon cell reuse; or a minimum lifetime of 35 years for solar panels.

Co-author of the study Dustin Benton commented: “Right now, consumers across Europe are getting a raw deal on product quality. It’s great that the commission is finally acting on this issue, but consumers need better design for many products, not just a few.

“It’s not complicated: simple design changes make the difference between long-lasting products and premature obsolescence.”   

The ‘Better products by design’ report is available to download at the Green Alliance website.

You can also read Resource’s in-depth look at how design can mitigate waste and be a prominent driver for the circular economy from our previous issue.

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