What ‘Circular Economy’ Means for Right-to-Repair

EU legislation will make batteries replaceable in nearly all portable devices

Photo by Lennart Preiss, courtesy of the European Union.

By Josh Levin
Published July 28, 2023 | Updated February 18, 2024 at 10:25 am

The European Parliament voted June 14 in favor of a proposal which will set battery sustainability standards.

The regulation will set recycling and collection requirements, and mandate that batteries in electronic devices be replaceable by the end-user, according to the European Parliament.

End-users must be able to remove the battery in their devices “with the use of commercially available tools,” the regulation states. Removing the battery cannot require heat or chemicals, nor can it require specialized tools unless the manufacturer provides them for free.

iFixit Director of Sustainability Liz Chamberlain, who leads iFixit’s right-to-repair advocacy efforts, said that the regulation is a necessary step. “I think that user-replaceable batteries is sort of the bare minimum for repairability,” she said. “Batteries are consumable; they will go bad eventually.”

The regulation makes exceptions for devices which are primarily designed to be used in wet environments. “Our advocates in the EU pushed back on some of that,” Chamberlain said. “I think it’s unfortunate, for instance, that that exempts electric toothbrushes, but it is definitely the broadest regulation of this kind.”

According to Noah Aragon, global advocacy public relations intern at iFixit, this exemption won’t open a loophole for devices like wireless earbuds. “Strictly speaking, it looks like stuff like that ought to be included,” he said.

“The only devices that are of a portable nature that are allowed to be designed in a way where you may need a little more know-how – if its possible at all – to replace the battery are those appliances specifically for operation in a wet environment, or […] professional medical imaging devices,” Aragon said.

“Any time batteries are not user-replaceable, it essentially limits the lifespan of that device to that of the battery. It builds in a death date for that object,” Chamberlain said.

Opponents argue that the requirements will lead to lower water resistance ratings or device durability. “I think designers are smart and can work with design constraints,” Chamberlain said. “Having a user-replaceable battery is a design constraint that I think many, many devices have proved is not a barrier to innovation, so I think it’s a red herring.“

Other parts of the regulation require rare materials, such as cobalt and lithium, to be extracted from discarded batteries and reused in new batteries. Extracting these materials from the ground can be toxic and damaging to the environment, Chamberlain said, so reusing them will make battery production more sustainable.

“The new law takes into account technological developments and future challenges in the sector and will cover the entire battery life cycle, from design to end-of-life,” the European Parliament stated in a press release.

“I think repairability is a sustainability issue. That’s the argument that we make all the time,” Chamberlain said. “One of the biggest reasons for us, as a society, to make things more repairable is that we are producing too much. We are over-consuming, and that has huge effects on our planet.”

According to Aragon, tying the issues together makes people better understand the importance of repair. “Orienting it with that sustainability focus, even where repair is benefiting from the legislation, gets people talking about it in a way that might not excite them when you’re talking about repair exclusively,” he said.

The EU also recently passed a regulation which will require portable devices to charge via USB-C using the USB-C Power Delivery protocol. “No proprietary chargers, no older USB, it’s all got to be USB-C across the board,” Aragon said. It will also require manufacturers to provide consumers the option to purchase devices without an included charger to avoid unnecessary waste.

The EU already fully approved the charger regulations. They’re set to go into effect for smaller devices like smartphones at the end of next year, and larger devices like laptops in 2026, according to the European Parliament.

The end for the battery sustainability proposal is not so certain. While the European Parliament approved it, the European Council still needs to do the same. After that, different parts of the regulation will go into effect on different dates.

Said Aragon, “It’s not final until it’s final.”

Josh Levin is the founder and editor in chief of The Terabyte Tribune, handling all aspects of operations and coverage. He can be reached via email at [email protected]