European Union says phones and tablets must be easier to break by 2027

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The European Parliament agreed on new rules last week that would require smartphone and tablet manufacturers to make it easier for users to remove and replace batteries on their devices by 2027.

Environmentalist and “right to repair” advocates are praising the development as a win. However, the move may ultimately be a loss for consumers, as the mandate forces manufacturers to implement new design features that would actually make handheld electronics more prone to damage.

The new European Union (EU) rules will most likely usher in the return of user-replaceable batteries that were commonplace over a decade ago. Modern smartphone designs affix the battery within the device and typically use adhesives to seal it shut, often requiring specialized tools or technicians to replace a faulty or degraded battery.

Right to repair advocates have cried foul at manufacturers’ increased use of adhesives in the design of personal electronics, claiming the practice creates significant hurdles for repair. However, these design choices are meant to protect users from the most common forms of device damage.

I explained the relationship between repairability and durability in my report, “Two Wrongs Don’t Make a ‘Right to Repair’”:

While the use of sealants has created additional complexities in the repair of devices, these designs function to “resist the intrusion of dust and water into the internal electronics.” Thus, manufacturers are faced with a trade-off: construct tightly sealed electronic devices to increase resistance to water and moisture, or construct devices with more easily replaceable batteries. Overemphasizing repairability could in turn make devices more prone to damage from drops and exposure to moisture.

Peer reviewed research has also acknowledged this trade-off. According to an article in the Journal of Cleaner Production, “certain measures that may improve repairability could reduce the technical withstand of smartphones.”     

The technical differences are further demonstrated by the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) “ingress protection” (IP) ratings. The IP ratings from the IEC provide two numbers. The first refers to protection from solid foreign objects like dust, with zero meaning no protection and six meaning dust-tight. The second number refers to the ingress of water and is numbered from zero to nine.

“Fairphone” is a Dutch based electronics company with the mission of providing environmentally sustainable electronics that are designed to be easily repairable by users. The repair provider iFixit gave the company’s most recent phone, the Fairphone 4, a perfect repairability score of 10 out of 10.

However, the IEC has given the Fairphone 4 an IP rating of 54, meaning the phone is mostly dust protected but only modestly protected against water ingress. On the other hand, Apple’s most recent smartphone, the iPhone 14, has an IP rating of 68. Six is the highest level of protection against solid foreign objects and signifies that the device is dust-tight. A rating of eight is the second highest level of protection for water ingress, meaning the iPhone 14 is protected “against the effects of continuous immersion in water.”

Some consumers may prefer repairability over durability. Others may prefer durability over repairability. And that choice should be left up to them, not the EU.

What’s worse is the EU might be making that choice for American consumers as well. Last year, the EU mandated the use of a common charger. By 2024, personal electronics like smartphones and tablets will have to be equipped with the USB-C charging port. The mandate prompted Apple to ditch its Lightning port and instead adopt the USB-C port for future iPhones. One can expect the recent EU mandate on batteries to have a similar effect in the U.S.

The EU’s battery mandate is illustrative of some of the most radical right to repair proposals. The mandate isn’t about property rights. It’s about state central planning that seeks to tell manufactures how to design their products. While American consumers will likely incur the negative consequences of the European regulation, American lawmakers should not follow in the EU’s footsteps.