EU’s green products initiative to emulate eco-design, battery rules

Circular economy policies have so far tended to focus on the end-of-life phase of a product. By contrast, the Circular Economy Action Plan shifts the attention from away waste to the full lifecycle of a product. [ShutterPNPhotography / Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable products initiative.

The EU Sustainable Products Initiative, set to be adopted on 30 March, will draw inspiration from the successful Eco-design Directive and lessons learnt from the Batteries Regulation presented one year ago.

The initiative aims to make all products placed on the EU market more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable, and energy-efficient.

It was first announced in March 2020 as part of the wider Circular Economy Action Plan, which wants to “make sustainable products the norm in the EU” while halving municipal waste in Europe by 2030.

The circular economy plan outlines measures to cut waste in areas like textiles, buildings and electronic equipment, which have so far been unaddressed at the EU level.

As part of this, the EU executive noted that “there is no comprehensive set of requirements to ensure that all products placed on the EU market become increasingly sustainable and stand the test of circularity.” This is what the Sustainable Products Initiative will seek to address.

Circular economy policies are not new in the EU, but to date, rues have mainly focussed on a products end-of-life phase. By contrast, the Circular Economy Action Plan shifts attention to the entire lifecycle of a product, said Stefan Sipka, a policy analyst at think-tank, the European Policy Centre.

“The idea is to go upstream and look at products themselves before they reach the end-of-life phase,” Sipka told EURACTIV.

The Sustainable Products Initiative will establish rules to make producers responsible for providing more circular products – either by providing products as services or ensuring the availability of spare parts to repair them.

It is also expected to introduce the EU Digital Product Passport, a mandatory tool that will force end products to disclose information on components and recyclability potential.

EU plans 'digital product passport' to boost circular economy

The European Commission plans to introduce a “digital product passport” early next year that would contain information about the composition of goods on the European market to help boost their chances of being reused and recycled.

Extending EU ‘ecodesign’ rules to new products

The Sustainable Products Initiative will essentially extend the current Ecodesign Directive – which focuses on energy-related products – to a broader range of goods.

“The SPI will extend the Ecodesign Directive in two ways: one is by introducing circularity requirements and to make products durable, reusable, recyclable, and repairable,” Sipka said. “The other extension is moving beyond electronics. There will be circularity requirements for electronics, but also in many other products, from textiles to furniture.”

The Ecodesign Directive is considered one of the ‘success stories’ of the EU’s green policies. A recent report from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green NGO, estimated that the EU’s ecodesign rules could account for a third of the total emissions reductions needed to achieve the bloc’s 55% greenhouse gas reduction target by 2030.

Just like the Ecodesign Directive, the Sustainable Products Initiative will provide a general framework, and sector-specific legislation will be required for different product categories, “especially in order to capture circular economy priorities not addressed in the overall framework,” says Ioana Popescu, senior programme manager at ECOS, an environmental NGO focusing on technical standards.

“For example, the SPI framework can set general rules for packaging to be durable, but the package-specific legislation can then go further and set targets to phase out single-use food packaging f by a certain year,” Popescu told EURACTIV.

Product design policy will be key to circular economy, EU says

As the European Union seeks to transition to a ‘circular economy’, the policy focus in 2021 will turn to products: how they are designed, and why so many seem to be made to throw away.

An innovative approach

The upcoming proposal will also draw inspiration from the EU’s Batteries Regulation presented at the end of 2020, the first-of-a-kind piece of legislation that intends to ensure that batteries placed in the EU market are sustainable and safe throughout their entire life cycle.

According to Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, senior policy officer at the EEB, the approach taken by the Batteries Regulation, which will likely be replicated in the Sustainable Products Initiative, is quite innovative.

“It combines many elements: a lifecycle approach, the idea to include a Digital Product Passport, due diligence requirements, durability and repair requirements – so there are not just environmental but social supply chain issues considered, and that is quite innovative,” Schweitzer explained.

The Sustainable Products Initiative will incorporate several elements of the Batteries Regulation. Similarly, the metals involved in the manufacturing of batteries – such as cobalt or lithium – will be affected by the SPI in many ways as the scope of the legislation is broadened.

The Batteries Regulation is currently in the hands of co-legislators – the European Parliament and EU member states – who may still introduce amendments to the proposal which could be reflected in the Sustainable Products Initiative.

“The Commission should watch out for loopholes given by broad exemptions and poor definitions,” warned Rita Tedesco, senior programme manager at ECOS. “For example, the Batteries Regulation included exemptions and weak definitions that left out light means of transport (e-scooters, e-bikes) batteries from collection and recycling targets,” she said.

Tech industry warns against risk of market fragmentation

The EU’s sustainable product rules can be a game-changer for many industries – not least for the electronics and technology sectors, which involve multiple intermediary products and value chains.

Brussels-based association Orgalim, representing Europe’s technology industries, says the Sustainable Products Initiatives could be “a win-win opportunity for the environment and the economy – if designed properly.”

“It is critical to do a thorough impact assessment,” said Orgalim about the EU cost-benefit analyses which usually come with every big policy proposal. “This initiative is too important and core to Europe’s industries competitiveness. If done poorly, it could also cause serious damage,” warned Malte Lohan, director general at Orgalim.

According to him, the SPI needs to ensure that all EU member states are subject to the same requirements; otherwise, the Commission risks  “destroying” the EU single market, Lohan told EURACTIV.

The SPI will also need to introduce effective enforcement of the rules and market surveillance to ensure a level-playing field with producers outside the EU.

“Manufacturers want to see that, if they are following rules on circularity, there should be an incentive for people to choose these products. Without market surveillance, we risk having some organisations not implementing; and then those that play by the rule will get the cost and not the benefit. The more the rules are complicated, the more we have a risk of this happening,” Lohan explained.

Moreover, much of the requirements of the Sustainable Products Initiative will fall to Europe’s SMEs, which form the vast majority of EU businesses. So “additional requirements should be kept as minimal as possible, and must be manageable and affordable,” Lohan added.

Ultimately, the rules will need to ensure that the environmental improvement of the products does not negatively impact consumers, particularly lower-income households.

“In the long run, it could save costs, because if you buy a refrigerator that can last for 10 years, you won’t have to buy another one in three years. You are saving money in the long term, but it can be more expensive at first,” says Sipka from the European Policy Centre.

“So, in the short run, that’s a problem, and it could be an issue for people with lower income who may be faced with more expensive products,” he cautioned.

EU unveils circular economy plan 2.0, drawing mixed reactions

The European Commission unveiled its new circular economy action plan on Wednesday (11 March), confirming the EU’s intention of halving municipal waste by 2030, and suggesting to offer consumers a new “right to repair” for computers and smartphones.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon/ Alice Taylor]

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