The EC Again Leads the Global Effort Against E-waste: Will Apple be Forced to Scrap its Lightning Connectors?

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4Q 2021 | IN-6316

In ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of e-waste generated by technology chargers, the European Commission is taking their directive a step further by requiring all devices to have the same charging port.

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Apple Opposes European Commission Plan for Mandating a Single Universal USB-C Port

NEWS


In September 2021, the European Commission (EC) revised its Radio Equipment Directive to take an additional step against e-waste and improve consumer convenience. The proposal aims to harmonize charging ports to use of a USB-C connector, as well as for fast-charging technology, which could also accelerate progress towards use of wireless chargers and free-port devices. As a result, it will be a requirement for all smartphones, headphones, portable speakers, and other devices to have a USB-C port, with the exception of smartwatches, earbuds, and fitness bands due to their relatively smaller size. In addition, the EC has proposed decoupling charging leads from electronic device sales in all countries within the EU.

Despite various objections to the proposal, which Apple sees as a roadblock to progress and technology, the EC has emphasized the importance of solutions that support both the environment and consumers while pursuing digital and green goals. However, it is unclear for how long and to what extent this proposal, if approved, will affect the smartphone market, and a two-year transaction period will be required if the proposal becomes definite.

Guiding Technological Innovation to Reduce E-Waste

IMPACT


The informational failure represented by consumers owning too many unused chargers for their electronic devices is estimated to generate more than eleven tons of e-waste per year in the European Union, and the EC has tried to nudge the electronics industry many times to reduce their negative externalities though a voluntary agreement. Indeed, an agreement (memorandum of understanding) announced in 2009 was not legally binding and was based on voluntary participation; however, it did not produce the expected results as companies, especially Apple, were not respecting the agreement. For example, the standard, proprietary Lightning Connector is still being used to charge Apple's latest iPhone 13 series. Contrarily, based on a mandatory protocol, the current proposal announced in September will ensure that there is global alignment for charging connectors which will result in a reduction in market fragmentation. Furthermore, it is strictly related to the Circular Economic Action Plan and, therefore, it will benefit all economic operators by improving consumer convenience and reducing e-waste. Without a doubt, this will make it easier for consumers to make decisions about their purchases of electronic devices because more information will be provided about the performance of their chargers. Additionally, the EC claims that, by implementing the new directive, it will be able to save more than 250 million euros per year in unnecessary charges linked to the sale of new smartphones. According to its impact assessment, such policy intervention will reduce Europe’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by about 180 KtCO2, material use by about 2600 tons, and e-waste by about 980 tons.

Some of the most popular Android smartphones and tablets already support USB-C. Apple, instead, has continued to use a Lightning Connector on most of its products, even though some, such as the iPad Air 4 and the recent MacBooks, use USB-C as the standard connector. However, in an effort to reduce e-waste and, therefore, its carbon footprint, Apple has eliminated the ‘in-box’ charger and the headset from the iPhone 13, making the packaging smaller. This strategy has allowed it to increase profit margins further, pushing consumers to now buy a separate adapter (the latest versions still include a Lightning Connector port) and headset, or reuse old ones, while cutting costs on packaging and shipment. However, according to the words of EC Executive Vice-President Vestager, “It won’t take too long to reach an agreement as the industry has already had the opportunity to adapt and find solutions, and this directive will accelerate advancements in terms of innovation and technology.”

If the EC follows through on its plans to make standard USB-C chargers mandatory on all smartphones, Apple will be affected more than its Android counterparts, such as Samsung, Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, Motorola, and OnePlus.. As a result, Apple will need to give up its Lightning chargers, causing problems for accessory manufacturers and an inconvenience for consumers. However, it is believed that this will have little to no impact on iPhone sales; contrarily, it is predicted to increase demand for Apple Wireless Charging Pads and power banks. Indeed, Apple is smoothly transitioning towards its own MagSafe ecosystem, a proprietary magnetically-attached wireless power transfer and accessory-attachment standard, announced in October 2020, and will continue to use its Lightning chargers until it can move fully to wireless charging. The wireless charging ecosystem is still relatively immature and time will be required to work on specific features to ensure it can offer high-quality performance and enhanced user experiences. Indeed, despite smartphone manufacturers having already developed wireless charging technology that is used widely across portfolios, when compared to a USB-C connection, it is much slower to charge, still needs the device to be in close contact at all times with the charging pad, and has relatively expensive accessories. However, Xiaomi is planning to raise the bar with its rumored 200W fast charging flagship smartphone, while Vivo has unveiled its X70 series of high-end smartphones, which includes the X70 Pro Plus as the first Vivo smartphone to support wireless charging.

New Directive Expected to Speed Transition to Wireless Power

RECOMMENDATIONS


The EC mandate represents a significant push towards innovation and progression for consumers and tech companies concurrently, while drastically reducing waste, and is expected to accelerate progress towards greater use of wireless chargers and more port-free devices. However, considering the limited time of the transition period, tech companies may reach universal compatibility through a single USB-C port and adopt an auto power-adjustable charger that can be used with any device because it supplies the amount of power needed, minimizing risk and damage to batteries. Also, great interest has emerged about laser wireless charging technology that is considered to be as powerful as a charger into a USB port, which can give power to a device from a distance. Chinese manufacturer Huawei announced its patent for wireless charging via laser in 2020, used for medium/long distances.

However, the wireless charging market still needs time to develop before it can be considered fully efficient. The proximity and physical placement of electronic devices on the charger pad still represents a crucial aspect, even though some technological advancements that use several coils across a larger area can enable the detection and position of multiple devices, which Apple has successfully implemented in its Belkin Boost Pro-3-in-1 Wireless Charger with MagSafe.

Additionally, some companies have already tested the concept of button/port-free devices (e.g., Xiaomi, Vivo, etc.). For example, in February 2021, Xiaomi revealed a port-free concept smartphone with a quad-curved display that wraps around the whole device and has pressure-sensitive virtual buttons. Similarly, Vivo has worked on similar concepts with its Apex 2019, even though the company had some problems with the pressure-sensitive areas behind the glass which gave inaccurate readings when differentiating pressure between “invisible buttons”. As a result of the EC’s directive, Apple's battle with the EU may hasten the transition of its own smartphones to button/port-free devices. Indeed, manufacturing devices that are port-free will also better protect smartphones from dust, water, and more, improving their durability and performance, which may potentially mean lengthening their effective market lifecycle, again helping reduce the amount of e-waste.

 

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