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View from Brussels: Masters of the universal charger

The EU has tried to make universal chargers the norm for more than a decade but always fallen short. Now, Brussels officials are more confident than ever that they are on the cusp of finally setting rules that will reduce cable clutter in our desk drawers.

A universal charger for phones, for laptops and for tablets has been on the cards for almost a decade but every time the EU has looked close to giving consumers what they want, their hopes are dashed.

It has prompted officials and MEPs alike to label the plan the ‘Holy Grail of consumer policies’. Either because they believe the idea is a true force for good or because they believe it is a futile quest that will never pay off.

One of the main failings to date has been the EU’s strategy of relying on voluntary agreements with industry to try and get its way. That tactic has failed, as tech giants like Apple refuse to play ball.

But times are changing. The current European Commission intended to push forward with the universal charger idea last year but was thwarted by the pandemic, which drew resources to more pressing issues.

It is a popular idea among members of the European Parliament, who last February voted in favour of it, citing the huge amount of waste currently generated by electronics sales. The Commission estimates that some 51,000 tonnes of cables are wasted every year.

According to internal emails seen by German outlet netzpolitik.org, the Commission is ready to roll up its sleeves and propose new rules later this year, which would also include standard chargers for smaller devices like e-readers and headphones.

Essentially, the idea is that new device sales are decoupled from charger sales and that consumers will charge their new iPhone or Samsung with a cable and plug that they already own.

EU legal eagles are still working out the best way to achieve that goal, given that the voluntary agreement model has been proven not to work on several occasions. It is likely that the Commission will show its hand before the summer.

There are other obstacles the EU executive will have to overcome. Tech companies are insistent that regulation not stifle innovation, so a system will have to be established that allows for the next generation of charger to be deployed once it is developed.

The Commission will also have to decide how to deal with wireless charging, which is currently less efficient than wired charging. Environmental NGOs, like standardisation specialists ECOS, insist that strict norms should apply in that field too.

A technical study is under way and the results will be included in the upcoming charger plan, which will also include “right to repair” provisions and measures aimed at boosting recycling efforts.

The EU has at least some progress to build on: the number of competing chargers has fallen dramatically in recent years to just three different types. Cables are generally no longer moulded onto their plugs either, freeing them up for use with other devices.

Success will ultimately hinge on how forcefully the EU can impose its vision on tech companies and, perhaps, if it can convince consumers to vote with their wallets and only buy devices that adhere to the ‘waste not, want not’ principle.

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