EU’s new green ‘circular economy’ set to transform how products are designed and made

All physical products will be required to be more durable, reliable, reusable and reparable under proposals set to ‘fundamentally’ alter design and manufacturing

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 30 March 2022 21:15 BST
Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in Europe
Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in Europe (Getty)

A major environment proposal put forward by the European Commission could fundamentally change product design and the market for hardware products.

At the core of the plans is a new legal framework which will help create a "circular economy" in the European Union, with requirements for all physical products to be more durable, reliable, reusable and reparable.

The plans aim to make the European economy less wasteful, reducing the impact on the environment and making enormous energy savings. The commission said that by 2030, their proposals could lead to energy savings almost equivalent to the entire EU’s usage of Russian gas.

Setting out the requirement for the plan, the European Commission said "the collision of major crises and economic shocks in recent years has impacted every part of the EU’s economy and society".

Highlighting the invasion of Ukraine, the Coronavirus pandemic, the surging cost of living across Europe, and the environment crisis, the Commission says these different crises all share some common ground, and together "force us to question assumptions, to rethink our economic model and to work on redesigning our energy system".

The commission outlined how sustainability can help reduce demands for energy and promote better working practices, while the shift to a circular economy for goods would reduce environmental impacts and help ensure manufacturers are producing well-made products that last rather than churning out disposable items which are cheap to make, but take a heavy toll on the environment and the economy in the long term.

Executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans said: “It’s time to end the model of ‘take, make, break, and throw away’ that is so harmful to our planet, our health and our economy.

"Today’s proposals will ensure that only the most sustainable products are sold in Europe. They allow consumers to save energy, repair and not replace broken products, and make smart environmental choices when they are shopping for new ones. This is how we bring balance back in our relationship with nature and reduce our vulnerability to disruptions in global supply chains.”

In a statement, the Commission said the plan "sets new requirements to make products more durable, reliable, reusable, upgradable, reparable, easier to maintain, refurbish and recycle, and energy and resource efficient".

It added: "In addition, product-specific information requirements will ensure consumers know the environmental impacts of their purchases. All regulated products will have Digital Product Passports. This will make it easier to repair or recycle products and facilitate tracking substances of concern along the supply chain. Labelling can be introduced as well. The proposal also contains measures to end the destruction of unsold consumer goods, as well as expand green public procurement and provide incentives for sustainable products."

Experts have said the move will "fundamentally affect how products are manufactured and circulated in the EU".

Rupert Bellinghausen, a partner at law firm Linklaters, said: "The proposal of a ‘safety net’ of rules and obligations for almost all physical products and the inclusion of economic operators all the way to online market places and search engines provides for a change that has the potential to fundamentally affect how products are manufactured and circulated in the EU.

"New obligations – from ecodesign requirements to digital product passes and the prevention of destroying unsold products – require companies to rethink production and supply across sectors and industries."

Pro-active companies could benefit from adopting new working practices sooner rather than later, and could inform new laws, he suggested.

He said: "The option of proposing self-regulating measures to meet ecodesign requirements is an important way in which companies can get involved in shaping future obligations."

The Commission’s plan builds on existing eco design requirements which the commission said saved consumers 120 billion euros in energy costs last year.

The revisions will ensure better labelling of products on their sustainability, a ban on destroying unsold products and promotion of sustainable business models and public procurement.

Until the new framework comes into force, the Commission said interim measures would update and increase the ambition for products that are already regulated, in particular for consumer electronics such as smartphones, tablets, solar panels, which is the fastest growing waste stream.

This has left some concerned it may be some time before regulations with teeth come into force.

Marie Castelli, head of public affairs at Back Market, which specialises in refurbishing electronic devices, told The Independent: “The Commission’s plan is a cornerstone of the transition to a more sustainable way of consuming and the path to a circular economy. We are very happy about the transparency it will bring by forcing manufacturers to provide information on the products’ impact, which will allow consumers to make informed choices.

"On the eco-design of products, we are a bit frustrated as most of the job will be done through delegated acts, which requires huge resources at Commission level, and electronics haven’t been listed as priorities. We are therefore concerned it will take years for customers to systematically access more reparable products.”

Alongside hardware products, clothing and textiles are also in the Commission’s sights.

European consumption of textiles has the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change, after food, housing and mobility, the commission said.

The new plans will "ensure that by 2030 textile products placed on the EU market are long-lived and recyclable, made as much as possible of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances and produced in respect of social rights and the environment".

They said the impact on consumers will be benefits such as clothes lasting longer and being made from high quality textiles, while economically profitable re-use and repair services should be widely available.

"Fast fashion should be out of fashion," the statement said.

Following Brexit, the UK will not be subject to the new rules, and as a result British consumers could be left with poorer quality goods and fewer options for repair.

Susan Evans, interim head of resource policy at think tank Green Alliance, told The Independent: "The UK risks being left behind with these ambitious proposals from the EU on sustainable product standards. Instead of just applying some marginally improved standards to a select few items, such as dishwashers, as in the UK, the EU is committing to stronger standards than we’ve seen, and to extending these to almost all consumer items.”

She added: “Consumers don’t want shoddy items that break after a short use, they want long lasting products that are easy to repair and eventually recycle.”

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