The European Commission is planning to propose measures to mandate the adoption of a universal charger for mobile devices by autumn, in response to a Parliament resolution adopted in January. Forcing conformity with a standard charger will impose additional costs on businesses and consumers, stifle innovation, and not solve the electronic waste issue.
First, requiring a universal charger standard would impact innovation by reducing the ability of companies to develop and bring to market better chargers and charging cables. Instead, companies would be locked in to a single standard even as technological advances create opportunities for faster charging, better designs, and new features, such as better water resistance. Requiring companies to adhere to the same standard for long periods of time are at odds with a sector characterized by fast-paced innovation.
Second, requiring a universal charger would harm consumers. While companies could still try to develop solutions for other markets, their introduction on EU markets would be delayed, if ever allowed. According to a recent study by Copenhagen Economics, if standardization delayed the introduction of a charging solution innovation by three years, this delay would create consumer value losses of at least €1.5 billion over seven years, vastly outweighing the €13 million of potential environmental benefits. In addition, one of the EU’s goals with a single charger standard is to have fewer phones sold with pre-packaged chargers, requiring those who still need chargers to purchase those separately. As the Commission’s own impact study acknowledges, this would create more opportunities for consumers to buy unsafe or counterfeit chargers, potentially jeopardizing consumer safety.
Third, requiring common chargers will not actually do much to cut electronic waste. The Commission has presented a common charger standard as a necessary measure to reduce some 51,000 tons of annual e-waste, but these oft-cited estimates are more than a decade old. This is an outdated and flawed reference—from when charging times were longer and phone makers used many more types of chargers. In fact, given that the market has moved from more than 30 types of chargers to three, there appears to be little additional e-waste savings to be had. Moreover, many phone makers separate the charging block from the charging cable, which allows easier replacement and updates with less e-waste. Finally, creating a single charger standard could force some consumers to throw out and replace their existing chargers, creating more e-waste. In particular, the EU’s proposal would most likely hurt the millions of Apple users, as many of their existing charging cables would become obsolete.
Instead of requiring a single charging standard, the Commission should instead encourage voluntary industry-led practices and market-driven standards to reduce e-waste while supporting innovation in the market. Indeed, the Commission’s 2009 memorandum of understanding, a voluntary agreement through which industry committed to use compatible chargers for mobile phones, is a successful model to build on as this encouraged industry consensus but left room for innovation by allowing phone makers to offer adapters to make their devices compatible with the industry standard. The Commission should not give in to calls from MEPs for this kind of regulation which would discourage innovation, inconvenience consumers, and generate no significant environmental gains.
Image credits: Flickr user EPP Group.