Small Changes, Like Standardizing Charging Cables, Have Big Impact

There is more to this story than just a USB-C charging cable.

European Union Flag with connectors

Okeksandr Seidov / Getty Images

The European Union reached an agreement to require all electronics companies to use the USC-B-C standard connector on 15 different product types, including phones, cameras, headphones, and other rechargeable devices, including laptops at a later date. Having different kinds of connectors on everything creates a huge pile of waste and has a big carbon footprint.

“With half a billion chargers for portable devices shipped into Europe each year, generating 11,000 to 13,000 tonnes of e-waste, a single charger for mobile phones and other small and medium electronic devices would benefit everyone," Alex Agius Saliba, a member of the European Parliament, in a press release.

emissions from report

European Union Directive

According to the proposal document, the change will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 180 thousand metric tons per year, reduce material use by 2,600 metric tons each year, and reduce e-waste by a number significantly smaller than quoted in the press release—980 metric tons—but still a big number. It will also save consumers 250 million Euros ($267,410).

Even though Apple has USB-C ports on its computers and tablets, it fought the proposal saying it was "concerned that regulation mandating just one type of connector for all devices on the market will harm European consumers by slowing down the introduction of beneficial innovations in charging standards, including those related to safety and energy efficiency.”

According to Mark Gurman of Bloomberg, Apple likes controlling things.

"The shift would lessen Apple’s control over the iPhone accessories marketplace. Apple forces accessory makers to pay it to use the Lightning connector and partake in a stringent approval process. USB-C is a standard used by many consumer device makers, including most Android phone manufacturers, making it less likely that Apple will be able to exert its usual level of control."

The shift would probably cost Apple a lot of money in lost sales of all those stupid dongles and adapters that I have spent hundreds of dollars on over the years.

But the E.U. is not just thinking of charging cables; it is part of a bigger picture. According to the report, "The Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan provided for initiatives along the entire life cycle of products, targeting their design, promoting circular economy processes, fostering sustainable consumption, and aiming to ensure that the resources used are kept in the Union economy for as long as possible."

The action plan is part of the European Green Deal and claims the transition to a circular economy will reduce pressure on natural resources. The plan states: "The new action plan announces initiatives along the entire life cycle of products. It targets how products are designed, promotes circular economy processes, encourages sustainable consumption, and aims to ensure that waste is prevented and the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible."

The action plan calls for designing sustainable products:

"While up to 80% of products’ environmental impacts are determined at the design phase, the linear pattern of 'take-make-use-dispose' does not provide producers with sufficient incentives to make their products more circular. Many products break down too quickly, cannot be easily reused, repaired or recycled, and many are made for single use only. At the same time, the single market provides a critical mass enabling the EU to set global standards in product sustainability and to influence product design and value chain management worldwide."

The action plan also calls for a "right to repair," and proposes an EcoDesign Directive to ensure all devices are designed for energy efficiency, durability, repairability, upgradability, maintenance, reuse, and recycling. And while they are at it, there are restrictions on hazardous substances.

3 generations of apple connector: 30-pin iPod, Lightning, USB-C
Three generations of apple connector: 30-pin iPod, Lightning, USB-C.

Lloyd Alter

There is no word on whether Apple will keep its proprietary Lightning connector on its hardware sold outside of Europe, but it certainly would simplify things; it is silly that I cannot use the same cable to charge my phone and my iPad.

There is also no word on what Boris Johnson and the United Kingdom will do. The nation is considering giving up metric units. According to Business Minister Paul Scully, “While we think of our fruit and veg by the pound, the legacy of EU rules means we legally have to sell them by the kilo." Given this, they might demand a return to the old 30-pin iPod socket that worked so well for our grandparents.

In the end, this isn't just about USB-C connectors, but about moving to a truly circular economy where there is less waste, reduced extraction of raw materials, and the carbon dioxide emissions "generated by the production, transportation, and disposal of chargers."

This teensy connector has a much bigger story to tell.

View Article Sources
  1. Gurman, Mark. "Apple Testing iPhones That Ditch Lightning Ports in Favor of USB-C." Bloomberg, 13 May 2022.

  2. "Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2014/53/EU on the harmonisation of the laws of the Member States relating to the making available on the market of radio equipment." European Commission, 2021.

  3. "Circular Economy Action Plan." European Commission.

  4. Communication From the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions. "A New Circular Economy Action Plan for a Cleaner and More Competitive Europe." European Commission, 2020. (PDF)