Five years after its first iteration, yesterday (11 March 2020), the European Commission launched its new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) as part of the overall European Green Deal.

The CEAP contains many proposals.  We will explore others (including those relating to batteries, packaging, plastics, textiles, ‘safe-by-design’ chemicals, non-financial reporting and shipment of waste) in separate posts.

For now, here is a brief outline of some of the more eye-catching proposals from a ‘sustainable products’ – in particular, electronics – perspective.

Sustainable products/eco-design

The Commission has stated that in 2021 it will propose a “sustainable product policy legislative initiative”.

A core aim of this initiative is to widen the Ecodesign Directive beyond energy-related products and make the Ecodesign framework applicable to the broadest possible range of products.

Most of the proposals involve concepts and themes that will come as no surprise to those steeped in product regulation, for example, plans to bring forward further proposals for rewarding products based on their different sustainability performance and improving product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability.

However, the proposals are nonetheless interesting in terms of certain emerging themes and how actions are described and prioritised.

Some explicit plans which stand out as having more disruptive or game-changing potential than others (albeit still not new concepts) are what the Commission describes in its communication as:

  • Countering premature obsolescence
  • Incentivising product-as-a-service or other models
  • Mobilising the potential of digitalisation of product information, including solutions such as digital passports, tagging and watermarks
  • Enabling remanufacturing and high-quality recycling
  • Addressing the presence of hazardous chemicals in products

Unsurprisingly, the Commission states that priority will be given to addressing product groups such as electronics, ICT and textiles and high-impact intermediary products such as steel, cement and chemicals.

Circular Electronics Initiative

As regards electronics and ICT in particular, the CEAP includes the promise of a Circular Electronics Initiative (CEI) in 2020/21, mobilising existing and new instruments.

The stated goal of the CEI will be to promote longer product lifetimes and – again, in addition to very familiar topics such as further measures to strengthen energy efficiency, durability, reparability, upgradability, maintenance, reuse and recycling – it is said that the CEI will include, among others, the following actions:

  • Focus on electronics and ICT as a priority sector for implementing a ‘right to repair’, including a right to update obsolete software
  • Introduction of a ‘common charger’, improving the durability of charging cables, and incentives to decouple the purchase of chargers from the purchase of new devices;
  • Exploration of options for an EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers
  • Review of the RoHS directive and improvement of its coherence with REACH and Ecodesign laws

The Commission indicates that it will also be adopting and implementing a new Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Working Plan 2020-2024 for individual product groups in the near future.

It is also noteworthy (though entirely in line with existing expectations under the EU Goods Package), that the Commission says that it plans to “step up efforts, in cooperation with national authorities, on enforcement of applicable sustainability requirements for products placed on the EU market, in particular through concerted inspections and market surveillance actions”.

Empowerment of consumers

To drive its sustainable products ambitions from the ground upwards, the Commission has also included in the CEAP high-level ambitions to increase the empowerment of consumers.  In that regard, noteworthy statements include that the Commission will:

  • Table a revision of EU consumer law “to ensure that consumers receive trustworthy and relevant information on products at the point of sale, including on their lifespan and on the availability of repair services, spare parts and repair manuals”.
  • Consider further strengthening consumer protection against:
    • Green washing (including the statement that the Commission will propose that companies substantiate their environmental claims using Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint methods and include more systematically durability, recyclability and recycled content in the EU Ecolabel criteria).
    • Premature obsolescence (that phrase again).
  • Work towards establishing a new ‘right to repair’ and consider new horizontal material rights for consumers, for instance as regards availability of spare parts or access to repair and, in the case of ICT and electronics, to upgrading services.
  • Set “minimum requirements for sustainability labels/logos and for information tools”.

Beyond these high-level ambitions, the CEAP is light on detail at present.  However, according to the timetable released by the Commission alongside the CEAP itself, the Commission’s objective is to make detailed proposals for all of the elements described above either later this year or during 2021. We will monitor developments and update this blog accordingly as more detail emerges.