EU wants USB-C to become standard charging port for all smartphones to limit e-waste

EU consumers spend more than $2.8 billion annually on standalone chargers.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

The European Union has released a proposal that would make USB-C the standard charging port for all smartphones and devices.

The European Commission said in a statement that the decision was made to address the significant amount of e-waste and consumer inconvenience caused by having multiple chargers for different devices. 

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton added that as people buy more and more devices, their previous chargers become obsolete because they are not interchangeable. 

"We are putting an end to that. With our proposal, European consumers will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics -- an important step to increase convenience and reduce waste," Breton explained.

The Commission said it has spent years working with tech industry leaders to voluntarily reduce the number of phone chargers and has succeeded in getting it from 30 different types to just three in the last decade.

"The Commission is now putting forward legislation to establish a common charging solution for all relevant devices. With today's proposal for a revised Radio Equipment Directive, the charging port and fast charging technology will be harmonized: USB-C will become the standard port for all smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld video game consoles," the EU said in a statement. 

"In addition, the Commission proposes to unbundle the sale of chargers from the sale of electronic devices. This will improve consumers' convenience and reduce the environmental footprint associated with the production and disposal of chargers, thereby supporting the green and digital transitions."

Apple -- probably the biggest company affected by the move -- slammed the decision in a statement to ZDNet, saying "strict regulation mandating just one type of connector stifles innovation rather than encouraging it." They added that the decision will "harm consumers in Europe and around the world" but noted that they "share the European Commission's commitment to protecting the environment." 

Apple also argued that the move would create even more e-waste because it would render millions of older devices worthless. The company added that they hope existing devices will be allowed to be sold or traded in before the change is made. The company also defended the voluntary process and noted that since 2009, it has worked with other major manufacturers like Samsung, Nokia and Huawei to limit the number of chargers.

Consumers spend more than $2.8 billion annually on standalone chargers, and in 2020 alone, more than 420 million phones were sold in the EU. In spite of all the money spent, EU studies have found that consumers own about three phone chargers, yet 40% report having issues because the available chargers are incompatible.  

The EU also found that more than 24 million pounds of e-waste comes from chargers that are thrown away or unused each year. A 2019 study from the Commission found that 29% of the chargers sold in the EU had a USB-C connector.

Most Android phones have either USB micro-B or USB-C charging ports. Even Apple has moved to the USB-C standard for the latest models of its iPad and Macbook, but many Apple devices also use a Lightning port. 

Margrethe Vestager, executive vice-president for a Europe fit for the Digital Age, said European consumers have been frustrated by incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers, noting that the industry had "plenty of time to come up with their own solutions." 

"Now time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger. This is an important win for our consumers and environment and in line with our green and digital ambitions," Vestager said. 

The Commission noted that the change would also stop manufacturers from limiting the charging speed of certain brands and reduce the number of unwanted or unused chargers that come with specific devices. 

By unbundling the sale of chargers from the sale of devices, the Commission said it was hoping to reduce the production and disposal of new chargers, which they estimate will reduce the amount of electronic waste by more than 2 million pounds yearly.

The proposal also includes measures that will force manufacturers to provide more information to consumers about how chargers perform, the amount of power needed by the device and whether the charger supports fast charging. The EU said it believes these measures will save consumers almost $300 million per year. 

The EU has been working to address the significant amount of e-waste now being produced on a daily basis and the general sustainability of electronic products in EU markets.  

The next step in the process will involve the European Parliament and the Council adopting the proposal by the ordinary legislative procedure. There will be a two-year transition period from the date of the proposal's passage in order to give manufacturers time to change. 

"To ultimately have a common charger, full interoperability is required on both sides of the cable: the electronic device and the external power supply. The interoperability on the device end, which is by far the bigger challenge, will be achieved by today's proposal," the Commission said.

"The interoperability of the external power supply will be addressed by the review of the Commission's Ecodesign Regulation. This will be launched later this year so that its entry into force can be aligned with today's proposal." 

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