As EU tries to make household appliances more efficient, consumers remain to be convinced

Efficiency improvements for things like toilets and lightbulbs, prompted negative press, especially in the UK where newspapers accused the EU of meddling in the most minute details of people's daily lives. [Richard Kelland / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Regulating appliances of the future.

European legislation has made appliances like washing machines and dishwashers even more water and energy efficient than washing clothes and dishes by hand. The next step is to connect these appliances to the web and allow them to act independently.

Appliances, or ‘white goods’ as they are known in the industry, are a big part of our daily lives. We wake up with a fresh brew from our coffee maker, make breakfast from food kept cold in our fridge, and get dressed with clothes from the washing machine.

We appreciate the conveniences, but we’re also aware that historically these appliances have guzzled electricity. For our pocketbooks, that has meant hesitation when purchasing them. Do I really need that dryer, or can I hang clothes on the line? Do I really need that washer, or can I scrub my dishes by hand?

But legislation passed in the European Union over the past decade means that this dilemma might not have to be so intense these days.

“Today using a dishwasher uses 10 times less water than cleaning dishes by hand, and uses less than one-third of the energy,” says Paolo Falcioni, director-general of the European appliance industry association APPLiA.

“The EU has been through a number of legislative iterations of energy labelling and eco-design, and today consumers can enjoy the best possible ovens, washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and air conditioners,” he says. “Thanks to a number of legislations designed to make the sales of products as transparent as possible through energy labelling, the worst performing products have been removed from the market.”

Legislators in the European Parliament are about to approve a raft of new energy labelling requirements for five major appliances, and these changes are expected to take effect in the next two years. MEPs are hoping that these changes will be a positive piece of news to take home to their voters in the European election campaign in May.

Public hostility

But in fact, these efficiency improvements have had a complicated relationship with public opinion in the past decade. Public backlash has been one of the biggest impediments to passing these EU laws.

Efficiency improvements for things like toilets and lightbulbs, passed by the Commission of Jose Manuel Barroso which ended in 2014, prompted negative press, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Newspapers accused the European Union of meddling in the most minute details of daily life and demanded the freedom for consumers to use too much electricity and too much water if they so choose.

This spooked Barroso’s successor Jean-Claude Juncker, and his Commission engaged in a “better regulation” fitness check exercise led by his First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.

Juncker: This Commission no longer regulates the flushing of toilets

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday (23 February) that he “fought like a lion” against “ill-inspired Commissioners” who thought the EU should regulate the flushing of toilets. He also indicated that he will push for a multi-speed Europe in proposals to be unveiled next month.

Promising to be “big on the big things and small on the small things”, Timmermans drew up a list of pending and in-force legislation on the chopping block. Much of the list were environmental laws, including efficiency and eco-design. The result has been a slow-down in efficiency legislation.

“In 2013, under the Barroso commission, we had 15 measures in one year,” says Stéphane Arditi, a policy manager for the European Environmental Bureau, an NGO, and coordinator of the CoolProducts campaign. “Under this Commission, we’ve had one measure passed between 2014 and 2019. Now, at the end, we have a package with 17 measures in a row.”

“If they pass, it means it’s not bad compared to what we feared. We were very worried up to the last moment that the eco-design package had been put into question by the Juncker commission, which has slowed down the process at the expense of the consumer and European businesses.”

The Juncker Commission saw the light at the last moment, Arditi said, realising the better regulation exercise was not actually achieving anything in terms of increased public support.

“At the end, it looks like they’ve understood that it’s completely pointless to block this kind of legislation, which is delivering both for the environment and for the consumer. According to the international energy agency, eco-design and ecolabel are the third best policy of all time concerning energy efficiency, after car emission limits and industrial savings in China.”

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Arditi says he’s also seen a change of heart from the appliance industry. “EU policy-makers have strengthened efficiency legislation but sometimes in spite of resistance from industry. But now, certain industries have understood this is the way forward and they are innovating.”

But Arditi also cautions that though the efficiency of appliances has improved greatly in recent years, that doesn’t always translate to less energy use. For instance, if fridges are getting larger at the same time that they are getting more efficient, the savings can be cancelled out.

“Energy efficiency is not the same as energy consumption. If you have a non-efficient fridge which is small volume, the efficiency is less, but the consumption is low.”

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Consumers in a circular culture

Falcioni says the industry in Europe has embraced the EU’s efficiency changes and see them as a way to gain a competitive edge over global competitors. He points out that unlike smaller goods, the production process for large appliances tends to be entirely within Europe.

But he agrees that consumer acceptance, and consumer involvement, has been a problem. New legislation can’t do any good if consumers aren’t aware of how to benefit from it and engage in the process. This especially applies to EU legislation that has sought to increase the repair, re-use and recycling of appliances.

Anecdotally, consumers often say that their appliances don’t last as long as they used to. And when they break, they are unsure how to fix them. Often times, it is easier and cheaper to just buy a new machine. But then they don’t know how to properly dispose of the appliance. And even when it is disposed of correctly, most of it may not be recycled.

EU legislation has set out new parameters for how to make appliances easier to take apart for recycling. The Commission is also working on legislation to make it easier to repair. And recent revisions to the EU’s WEEE directive on waste sets strict new requirements for recycling, and endeavours to improve the tracing of recycled material.

But Falcioni says consumers need to be more involved. That’s why APPLiA uses the term “circular culture” rather than the “circular economy” used by the Commission for these pieces of legislation.

“If we want to go the next step, then it’s not just the economic actors who have to adopt the circular model, it’s a cultural change that we all have to do to adopt this new model.”

Today only one-third of the waste electric equipment is properly traced. That means that two-thirds are somehow recycled but it’s unknown how, which may mean it wasn’t done under proper environmental standards.

“I think that we have followed all the regulation could deliver, but now to make the next step it needs to be a joint effort of overall society, through a change in our culture. It’s not that we are trying to pass the buck, that we’re saying we’ve done all we could. We are striving continuously to improve the situation.”

“The repair of products has been often challenged as one of the weak points of later generation products. We wanted to analyse to what extent our products are not only reparable, but how many requests for repair they are getting. We agree with the Commission proposal to enlarge the possibility of repairing products through a network of professional repairers”.

Durand: The debate on programmed obsolescence is not happening in the EU

France is breaking new ground with preliminary investigations into programmed obsolescence by Apple and Epson. But at a European level, the debate on product life-cycles is not taking place, Pascal Durand said in an interview with EURACTIV France.

Smart appliances

Another way to get consumers more involved in the circular culture is giving them the power to use their appliances in the most efficient way at the most efficient time. Appliances now on the market can interact with smart meters in the home and be controlled remotely, or timed to run when electricity is cheapest.

For instance, an air conditioner can today automatically adjust when it receives a signal from the grid that energy cost is at its lowest level.

Energy consumption can be optimised when renewable energy becomes available, thereby increasing the penetration of renewable energy sources. A heater can get a signal from the electric grid that there is a peak in demand, and can delay its cycle slightly in response to adapt to the needs of the grid. All this can be done so the user doesn’t even notice the change in temperature.

But this is another area where the entire culture needs to change. Even if consumers are made fully aware of the possibilities of their new smart appliances, it will no good if the energy utilities aren’t equipped to accommodate them. Europe’s ageing and disconnected energy grids just aren’t up to the challenge at the moment.

“The electricity market is not at a level of maturity where it is able to always offer a dynamic tariff that could enable some savings to the smart usage of electricity,” says Falcioni. “So far we are at the very start of this.”

“What we would like to see happening is a more dynamic energy market that would allow aggregators of demand-side flexibility to work better than they are today. The management is still divided across Europe. The realisation of this smart energy market should be the first priority of the next energy commissioner. It’s been started but it needs to be finalised.”

Are we there yet? Current state of the smart home market

The smart home is capturing headlines with its futuristic possibilities of smart cars, fridges and thermostats all connected to each other. However, it is important to be realistic. The current state of the smart home is not even close to this vision, writes Paige Leuschner.

Surveys have found that 80% of Europeans find the idea of living in a smart home appealing. But there are significant concerns about the data privacy issues involved. Some EU lawmakers have expressed concern that the industry is plowing ahead with smart appliances without a sufficient regulatory structure in place to control how data on people’s appliance use is collected and used.

And some consumers say that they’d rather pay more for electricity than have their refrigerator spying on them.

Falcioni says the industry wants this regulation in place just as much as anyone else. “We believe this is an area where Europe should lead – addressing e-privacy, cyber security and data ownership issues,” he says.

“It’s important to establish clear guidelines about who is actually the owner of the data. If I’m doing the washing, then it’s me who is the owner of the wash data. If I give consent to the manufacturers to develop a better machine, I can do so.”

These will be issues for the new Commission which takes office at the end of this year. Stakeholders say the most important things the new regime can do to help appliances become more efficient and generate less waste will be to complete the integration of Europe’s energy networks and develop a framework for regulating smart appliances.

As the new commission nominees are put forward, this will be one of the questions facing potential new environment and energy chiefs.

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