European consumers are wasting $400 million (€250 million) per year buying unnecessary chargers and dumping 11,000 tonnes of old chargers as e-waste, the European Commission (EC) has estimated as it defies Apple’s concerns to progress a proposal to standardise mobile-phone chargers across the market.
Aiming to consolidate and simplify the market for mobile-phone chargers, the EC’s proposed new Radio Equipment Directive would force manufacturers of smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers, and handheld videogame consoles to design their products to recharge using USB-C connections only.
The move would cut 1,000 tonnes of e-waste annually and signal an end to an array of proprietary standards that have left European consumers “frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers,” Margrethe Vestager, executive vice-president for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, said as the new mandate was announced.
“We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions [but] 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.”
Here is a small revolution in our daily lives! Our proposal for a common charger for mobile phones and other devices was adopted today. No more entangled cables in our hallway drawers 😊 #DigitalEU #EndChargerChaos pic.twitter.com/hmLN5vCi2P— Margrethe Vestager (@vestager) September 23, 2021
Consumers own three mobile chargers, on average, and use just two of them on a regular basis, the EC said, citing figures suggesting that 38 per cent of consumers had run into a situation where they couldn’t charge their devices because available chargers were incompatible.
Chargers would be unbundled from the devices they support, formalising a controversial change that Apple implemented when it stopped shipping chargers with its iPhone 12 and Apple Watch 6.
Apple claimed that the world’s consumers already have 2 billion chargers and didn’t need any more potential e-waste, but the move didn’t sit well with critics that accused the company of greenwashing – and forcing consumers to buy into its new MagSafe charger product ecosystem.
Brazilian regulators didn’t buy it, and in March fined the company for “misleading advertising, selling a device without the charger, and unfair terms.”
The new proposal would also signal the end of low-powered chargers, ensuring that all chargers deliver at least 25 watts of power and provide full-speed fast-charging capabilities regardless of manufacturer.
MagSafe and comparable chargers all operate at 7.5W or 15W for quick charging-capable devices, meaning the proposed EC standard would provide plenty of headroom.
Manufacturers will have two years to adapt their products to the directive’s requirements if it is passed into law.
For Thunderbolt and Lightning, it’s very very frightening
Makers of Android phones have been using some form of USB port for many years, but Apple has pushed back against the EC mandate, arguing in a statement that “strict regulation mandating just one type of connector stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, which in turn will harm consumers in Europe and around the world.”
The company has long used proprietary connectors to its user experience.
For example, its 30-pin Lightning port – the standard across its iPhones, iPads and other devices since its introduction in 2012 – was promoted as a smaller plug that supports smaller devices and could, unlike contemporary USB variants, be plugged in either side up.
Apple also promoted Thunderbolt, a higher-speed cable standard that has progressively converged with USB-C for connecting computers with displays.
Apple has shifted to USB-C ports on its portable and desktop laptops, but has retained Lightning on its mobile devices and requires a USB-C-to-Lightning cable to charge its devices.
Convergence around USB-C could further marginalise Thunderbolt and Lightning – particularly after a May update to the USB Power Delivery standard that allows USB-C cables to carry up to 240W of power, up from 100W in current versions.
That’s enough power to do away with proprietary chargers for laptops, desktops, and other high-load devices, potentially reducing another source of e-waste if computer makers are no longer required to bundle chargers with the systems they sell.
US-based consumer advocate group the Consumer Choice Center wasn’t convinced, with research manager Maria Chaplia warning in response to the EC directive that “conformity is the greatest enemy of progress”.
“Innovators never sleep," she wrote, “and new versions of [chargers] pop up in the market almost instantly. Driven to compete, companies are thus able to keep improving their products and offering more choice.”
“Common chargers enforced by the EU would infringe on this entrepreneurial spirit... to preserve innovation and consumer choice, European policymakers should stick to technology neutrality and not interfere in the choices of consumers.”