In 2020, a manufacturer was fined by authorities for using a software update to throttle the speed of its older generation smartphones.
The company brought up the extension of battery life as justification, while critics said it was ‘planned obsolescence’: the practice of deliberately limiting a product’s functional lifetime, to boost sales of new models.
A company making audio products went as far as to activate a kill-switch making older products unusable whenever a customer upgrades to a newer product.
Last year, a small Norwegian repair shop lost a ’David vs Goliath’ court case for using cheaper copies instead of company-authorised replacement parts to repair phones.
Repairing a cracked display, a frequent problem for smartphone users, can cost up to 40% of the device’s purchase price, sometimes more than the value of the used phone on the market, as according to a JRC study.
Minor electronic glitches can cause the loss of an entire washing machine, because small parts of printed circuit boards are nestled in plastic layers that cannot be removed, another study carried out with the contribution of the JRC points out.
Such stories are abundant, many of them involving of unreliable, cumbersome, overpriced, or non-existent repair processes, as well as inconsistent or patchy support from manufacturers, coupled with evidence for built-in fragility.
Consumers are therefore nudged towards a ‘buy-use-discard-buy’ behaviour, wasting precious resources.
Not beyond repair: the JRC’s guidelines
Reparability is a complex issue, and commercial dynamics play a role: for example, to achieve more powerful and compact designs in a cutthroat market, manufacturers may sometimes opt for solutions that compromise a product’s ease of repair.
JRC research notes that several manufacturers now make smartphone covers out of glass, a material that ensures better signal reception, and is more difficult to scratch than plastic.
However, it shatters more easily.
Most new smartphones are sold with embedded batteries, which have the advantage of being integrated into the existing system circuitry, but are also far more difficult to remove.
Furthermore, there is a trend towards using glue rather than screws, which, in the absence of specialised tools, can inhibit disassembly and re-assembly work.
While recognising that a compromise must be found between performance and reliability on one hand and reparability on the other, the JRC does have some recommendations for making repair easier.
Manufacturers should design their products with an eye to making future repairs more straightforward. Coming up with modular designs, and making disassembly possible with simple tools, are ways to make repair less complicated, JRC scientists say.
Enabling the future extension of memory and storage capacity could, in turn, extend product lifetime.
The JRC also drew up an ease-of-repair scoring system, which assesses the reparability of products by looking at various aspects, such as the re-usability of fasteners, access to spare parts, and the availability of information on repair sequences.
The scoring system could serve as a technical reference to be applied in the context of the upcoming Sustainable Products Initiative, under which a revision and extension of existing EU Ecodesign rules to a wide range of products is expected, and potentially for future product policy initiatives.
Closing the loop: an economy with zero waste
The EU has been striving to replace the current linear growth model, in which products are made, used, and thrown away, with a circular one – one that keeps products and their materials in use for longer, and reduces waste to a minimum.
A major part of this effort is strengthening the right to repair, the entitlement of customers to be more than mere users and mend the products they purchased.
New regulations under the European Commission’s Ecodesign Directive published in 2019, introduce a number of resource efficiency provisions for energy-related products, including requirements that manufacturers should provide spare parts for a minimum number of years from the moment a product is placed on the EU market.
Similarly, the Circular Economy Action Plan puts emphasis on improving product reparability in general in the EU, including by implementing right-to-repair policies in the electronics sector, and considering the introduction of an EU-wide take-back scheme for old phones, tablets and chargers.
Such an initiative could reply to demands that are not currently being met. A JRC technical report points out that one of out of two smartphones gathers dust unused at the owner’s home after they are replaced.
The report offers guidance for the assessment of material efficiency, looking at aspects of smartphone lifetime such as user behaviour, critical raw materials used, end of life procedures, or carbon footprint, and is intended to provide reliable data for achieving circular economy objectives.
Its authors also remind readers that users buy a new smartphone every two years – in half of the cases with their old one still functional. Ensuring that products are easy to repair is one priority, therefore. Convincing users that they do not always need a shiny new product is another one.
The stakes are high: if implemented successfully, a circular economy could save €600 billion for EU businesses (8% of their annual turnover) and create 580,000 jobs, the Commission estimates.
Durability of smartphones: A technical analysis of reliability and repairability aspects
Analysis of evaluation systems for product repairability: a case study for washing machines
Analysis and development of a scoring system for repair and upgrade of products
Guidance for the Assessment of Material Efficiency: Application to Smartphones
Recommendation for the collection and recycling of light-EV batteries
How JRC scientists are filling the data gaps for greener everyday products
Future supply of raw materials must not repeat the sustainability problems of the past
- Publication date
- 9 August 2021