The European Union (EU) wants to require all cell phone manufacturers to use a common charging device. According to European policy makers, if everyone could use a common charger, it would promote consumer welfare and reduce electronic waste. The problem is that such a mandate would likely do neither. Instead, this top-down approach will stifle technological innovation and offer few benefits in consumer convenience and waste reduction.
Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution arguing that mandating a single standard charger would spare consumers from buying a charger every time they buy a phone. Now the European Commission—the EU’s executive arm—seeks to require a universal charger, USB-C, for all portable electronic devices.
The Commission argues that this proposal will reduce electronic waste, but that is unlikely. Currently, cell phones use three types of chargers—micro-USB, USB-C, and Apple’s lightning port. EU parliamentarians say a common charger would save approximately 50,000 million metric tons in e-waste every year, but that estimate comes from a 2009 study when the cell phone market had more than 30 different types of chargers. A single charger might have reduced e-waste back then, but the potential opportunities for waste reduction in a market with only three main chargers are significantly lower.
On the contrary, since the proposal will require companies like Apple and some Android manufacturers to produce EU-compliant devices and chargers, a one-charger mandate will increase electronic waste. As of 2019, only 29 percent of the chargers sold with cell phones in the EU had a USB-C connection. That means the remaining users will ultimately need to switch to USB-C compatible devices, further contributing to e-waste.
The European Commission argues that harmonizing chargers will improve user convenience and save consumers money. Again, while that might have been the case when there were over 30 different chargers, the potential benefits are much lower in a market with just three chargers. Furthermore, given the wide availability of adapters and chargers that can be separated from the wire, it is unlikely that any potential increase in consumer convenience would outweigh the costs of slowing innovation.
The Commission also seeks to unbundle the sale of chargers from the sale of electronic devices—but it does not provide any data demonstrating that chargers comprise a significant part of total manufacturing costs. If selling devices without chargers were significantly cheaper, companies could do that on their own with a la carte pricing. Samsung and Apple have suggested that they might do that in the future. In a world where chargers and adapters abound, companies can already sell cell phones and other portable electronic devices without chargers at a lower price—no restrictive EU regulations needed.
In 2009, the EU and leading cell phone manufacturers signed a voluntary agreement to offer micro-USB-compatible devices, reflecting the best available technology then. Had the EU legally required all companies to offer only micro-USB devices, it would have reduced companies’ incentive to develop better alternatives like USB-C, since companies could not sell non-compliant devices in EU markets.
Likewise, mandating USB-C will discourage manufacturers from developing the next generation of charging solutions, since they might not be allowed in the EU. Even if the EU’s regulation delays developing a new charging solution by just three years, it is estimated to lead to €1.5 billion ($1.76 billion) in consumer value losses, which would vastly outweigh €13 million ($15.2 million) in estimated environmental benefits.
Single charger proponents suggest that the European Commission will closely monitor new technological developments, but new technology can develop too rapidly for legislation to keep pace. That is especially true for the EU’s complex bureaucracy.
Furthermore, the new proposal would require politicians to pick winners and losers in the charger marketplace—a decision they are ill-equipped to make. Only consumers can determine which chargers offer them the best value at minimum cost.
Due to the European single market’s size, the EU’s proposed regulation will also harm innovation in the United States and around the world. Faced with EU regulations, American companies might ultimately decide to make a standardized charger instead of developing new and better ones. American manufacturers and consumers would both lose. U.S. policy makers should take note and voice their opposition to the EU’s proposed regulation.