April 14. 2024. 7:20

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Manufacturers brace for EU ‘product passports’ to improve recycling

European consumers suspect businesses purposefully make products to break down quickly and be unrepairable, and while a new EU-wide “product passport” aims to extend its lifetime and improve recyclability, there are big questions about how it will work.

Whether it’s dishwashers, televisions or laptop computers, many people believe their products are not built to last, and repairing them is usually more expensive than replacing it.

However, this is difficult to prove with hard data, and manufacturers strongly deny the claim.

“Regardless of what you read in the press, the average lifetime of household appliances is actually growing, it is not becoming less,” said Paolo Falcioni, director general of APPLiA, the European appliance industry association.

For instance, Falcioni’s washing machine has lasted 20 years, said the Italian lobbyist who spoke at an event organised last week in Brussels by EuRIC, the European recycling industry association.

But BEUC, the European consumer organisation, believes this is a real phenomenon. Last week, the group published the results of a long-running study on the issue called the PROMPT project.

The consumer group tested products to assess their lifetime and repairability, and while it couldn’t prove “planned obsolescence” – companies purposefully making products to break down – they did identify “premature obsolescence” – products being thrown away earlier than they need to be.

Brussels targets greenwashing, planned obsolescence in new EU consumer rules

New rules presented by the European Commission on Wednesday (30 March) aim to better protect consumers against false environmental claims and introduce a ban on greenwashing and planned obsolescence.

Digital product passports

The row over product obsolescence comes as manufacturers prepare for a major change in EU rules – the introduction of digital product passports.

Product passports are the central plank of the EU’s Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), a set of rules proposed by the European Commission last March to make durable and repairable products “the norm” in the EU’s single market.

The new regulation expands the EU’s existing ecodesign rules, which currently apply to electric appliances, to a broader range of products, including textiles and furniture. Most importantly, it would establish rules to make producers responsible for providing more circular products – either by delivering products as services or ensuring the availability of spare parts to repair them.

The ESPR “will be a change from what we have today, which is a linear economy, to a circular economy, creating products ensuring we can recycle them at end of life,” said Ioana Popescu from the Coalition on Standards (ECOS), an environmental group.

“And the digital product passport is intended to be a tool to enable environmentally-relevant decisions along the value chain,” she said at the Brussels event.

But the passport has been mired in controversy and complications. At a debate in October, some EU governments raised concerns that the passport could be unenforceable if designed too broadly and could overwhelm market surveillance authorities.

Under the proposal, products would have an ID number, similar to passports, which should be machine-readable via QR or bar codes. The passports are also set to include information on the product’s packaging.

EU government ministers have expressed concerns that market surveillance authorities would be overwhelmed by the new requirements and the additional administrative burdens that EU companies, especially small and medium enterprises, would face.

“These new requirements will represent a major challenge for enterprises, particularly start-ups and SMEs,” warned French Minister for Industry Roland Lescure. “For many of them, it will mean a significant change to their production models,” he said.

Martin Kocher, Austria’s minister of digital and economic affairs, warned that “important conditions such as cost-effectiveness, confidentiality, and proportionality must be ensured” in the product passports.

EU ministers challenge Commission’s ‘green products’ regulation

EU-27 ministers met last week to discuss the European Commission’s proposal for an EU regulation aimed at lowering the environmental impact of products by making them easier to repair, reuse and recycle.

Identifying products in the waste stream

One of the main purposes of the passports is to identify products in waste streams that could still be reused or recycled.

But while the recycling industry has broadly welcomed the Commission’s ESPR proposal, there are also concerns about implementation.

“If you visit recycling plants, you see the [large] volumes we recycle,” said Tess Pozzi, EuRIC’s institutional affairs director. “If the digital passport would be used, I’m really not confident that we as recycling plants with hundreds and hundreds of tons could [scan] each product,” he said at the Brussels event.

Pozzi says the product passport could be useful for electric appliances or big industrial equipment but not for smaller products.

Yet, there are also big hopes that scanning within the waste stream will enable retrieving products that have been discarded needlessly. “If a product is collected in a very good state at a recycling centre, it might also be able to go back to reuse and be sold second-hand,” she said, noting that around a third of products collected at recycling centres could be reused.

Falcioni said appliance manufacturers are ready to ensure that 100% of e-waste is properly collected and recycled.

However, he remarked that it is impossible to design products today for recycling technologies that do not yet exist, saying “there is an inevitable tension that we have to work together to fix”.

That’s why the ESPR needs to focus on business design, Falcioni argued, saying: “It’s not only product design, but it’s the entire value chain that should be designed circularly and sustainably.”

The ESPR rules are currently being debated in the European Parliament and Council of the EU, with positions expected to be adopted in the coming months.

Digital product passports become the norm in EU’s green economy plan

Digital product passports are becoming a central instrument to track the components and origin of raw materials used in all kinds of consumer goods.