Commission delays ecodesign strategy for fear of offending UK businesses

80% of a product's environmental impact can be predicted at the design phase. [Twentyfour Students/Flickr]

Central to the Circular Economy Package, the 2015-2017 ecodesign strategy will not be presented by the Commission until autumn 2016. Some see this as an attempt not to upset UK businesses. EURACTIV France reports.

Ecodesign, one of the pillars of public policy to promote the transition to a circular economy, is making slow progress at the European level.

The European Commission has still not published its much-awaited new ecodesign strategy for 2015-2017, a text which should provide the framework for the formulation of new, more efficient ecodesign standards for consumer products.

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“We understand that the ecodesign strategy has always been on the agenda, but that it will not be presented before this autumn,” said a representative of the European Federation representing the European waste management industry (FEAD).

This lack of urgency has left many stakeholders deeply unsatisfied. “Ecodesign must play a determining role in a successful transition towards a circular economy,” the federation explained.

According to FEAD, 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage.

Disagreement within the College

If Brussels has made slow progress on this issue, it is largely down to a disagreement over when would be the opportune moment to develop such a new set of rules.

“The UK referendum is seen as one of the reasons why the Commission would prefer to wait before presenting its action plan,” a source in Brussels said. The United Kingdom’s upcoming referendum on its continued EU membership, which will be held on 23 June, has paralysed a number of European initiatives, particularly those that focus on the adoption of new standards. Eurosceptic Brits often criticise the weight of regulation from Brussels as an unnecessary administrative burden on UK businesses.

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But beyond the question of Brexit, “tensions are running high within the Commission itself over the future of ecodesign”, the source said.

The partisans of “Better Regulation” believe this kind of standard-setting work would be counter-productive at a time when support for the European project itself is faltering.

General debate

The College of Commissioners examined the subject of ecodesign at their weekly meeting on 20 April and confirmed its importance in the EU’s overall Circular Economy strategy.

“The Circular Economy Package has identified ecodesign as a vital tool to help us achieve our objectives. The Commission has committed to supporting the introduction of product requirements in terms of reparability, durability and the possibility of recycling,” a representative of the European Commission told EURACTIV France.

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Brussels has yet to set a publication date for the strategy. Instead, the European executive wants to “take the time to carry out a neutral and factual analysis of the potential measures, in order to ensure that this policy is brought into force in the least intrusive way possible,” the Commission representative said. The ecodesign standards and energy labels will only be applied to products “with sufficient potential”, the representative added.

Tackling programmed obsolescence

These new standards – which would come into force in five years’ time – would aim to prolong the working life of consumer products like washing machines or microwave ovens, improve their energy efficiency and reduce their consumption of raw materials.

Today, ecodesign is regulated at the European level by a directive on the energy efficiency criteria of certain consumer goods.

But this text, drawn up in 2009, concentrates exclusively on certain families of products, like white goods or computers, but ignores other, more recent products like smartphones or tablets.

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And energy efficiency is the only aspect addressed by the directive, which leaves out other fundamental aspects of the Circular Economy, like resource efficiency or programmed obsolescence.

“For products like vacuum cleaners, which use a lot of energy, energy efficiency is the main issue, but for laptop computers, for example, which run on batteries, resource efficiency is central to the product’s design,” said Stéphane Arditi, from the European Environmental Bureau.

The European Union's Ecodesign Directive introduced a framework to set mandatory ecological requirements for energy-using and energy-related products sold in the 27 member states.

Currently the scope covers more than 40 product groups, including boilers, lightbulbs and fridges that are responsible for 40% of the EU greenhouse gas emissions.

The aim of the directive is that manufactures of the energy-using products should, at the design stage, be obliged to reduce the energy consumption and other environmental impacts of products.

The European Commission planned to continue its work on ecodesign as part of the Circular Economy package, presented in December last year.

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