19 Dec 19

All we want for Christmas… is for the EU to finally give up on voluntary agreements!

With the pioneering provisions for product repairability and recyclability introduced by the “Ecodesign Package” this year, Europe is making sure that our products last longer and are more efficient. Fridges, TV displays, dishwashers, washing machines and many other products we use every day are regulated through ecodesign – and the recently published European Green Deal suggests similar provisions will be developed for other products.

Even if far-reaching, the Ecodesign Directive, however, has a catch: it leaves the possibility for some products to be regulated through so-called voluntary agreements, which are drawn up by the industry. As long as it can be argued that policy objectives can be delivered faster or in a less costly manner, the door is open for industry players to come up with a set of commitments they themselves need to abide by. The question immediately comes to mind, though, how effective industry-developed agreements are, and whether they actually deliver better and faster.

It goes without saying that developing regulations takes time and resources. The process, however, brings about tangible results by means of concrete sets of rules and a level playing field for all actors on the market. Thanks to the regulations already in place, in 2020 alone the EU will save the equivalent of the annual energy consumption of Italy. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the voluntary agreements. Even though the first one was introduced already in 2010, their results remain meagre, and all three have grown to become infamous because of their poor market coverage, weak requirements and delays in adapting to technological developments.

In view of all this and considering the pressing need for increased energy and material savings in consumption, it is surprising that the European Commission is considering the introduction of a fourth VA, this time on taps and showerheads, products for which simple design requirements would bring vast energy and water savings.

Let’s have the facts speak for themselves, though. What are the existing agreements about?

The case of consoles – a dangerous game we’re playing

47 million individual game consoles are being sold in the EU each year, with some of the newest models annually consuming more electricity than a washing machine. In addition, the new trend of cloud gaming is expected to further increase energy consumption. Unfortunately, the current voluntary agreement does not even cover all the consoles on the market, and neither does it address the rapidly growing move towards cloud gaming.

While claiming to have achieved energy efficiency savings, the three main game manufacturers are in practice summarising the existing technology after the launch of their new consoles, and do not set a single commitment for themselves that would change their current business model – neither in terms of expected energy savings, nor of circular economy objectives.

Game consoles, therefore, continue to consume ever more energy, contain little to no information about their energy use in their numerous modes, retain their ineffective monopoly of the repair market, and are difficult to recycle at the end of life.

The process has not delivered tangible results faster than a regulation would have: the level of ambition on repairability is extremely low compared to regulations in the Ecodesign Package, and the voluntary agreement fails to address the issue of flame retardants, which are now banned from the electronic displays.

The case of printers – things are not looking up

The main environmental impact of printers lies mainly in the production phase, as well as in the use of consumables such as paper and cartridges. The voluntary agreement, however, focuses almost exclusively on the energy consumption of printers, thus ignoring their real impact, as well as issues of premature and planned obsolescence, refilling of cartridges or printer recyclability.

Manufacturers are therefore given the green light to continue pursuing their highly polluting business models, where a printer costs the same or even less than cartridges, and cartridge reuse is actively resisted through the use of firmware tricks.

The situation is, unfortunately, not likely to improve in the future, as the industry has put forward a proposal for a revised voluntary agreement that does not consider cartridge use at all and fails to address such key issues as printer repair and recyclability. In fact, the printer industry was expressly asked to integrate cartridges in the updated version of their voluntary agreement, and failed to do so – it really is time for the Commission to develop a regulation for this product group.

The case of TV decoders – lost in translation

The voluntary agreement for the complex set top boxes has been in limbo for months, if not years. The industry was asked to update it and integrate circular economy requirements but, once again, failed to deliver. As such, the voluntary agreement is no longer viable, has been on hold for over a year, and does not have a sufficient market coverage (80%) to be recognised by the European Commission. It is high time to regulate this product group, too.

The case of taps and showers – savings down the drain

It is estimated that we could reduce our annual consumption of water by 8% and our primary energy consumption by 37% with a mandatory label. Simple design requirements would allow to save water, and saving hot water means saving energy. The scene was set a long time ago – the preparatory study was completed in 2014 – but hardly anything happened until December 2019. The news this Christmas is not encouraging, however. Instead of going forward with the regulation, the Commission held a Consultation Forum to discuss a potential voluntary agreement for these products. The proposed VA defines a water label which is only voluntary, and fails to reach the level of market coverage normally required for voluntary agreements to even be recognised.

The long delays and weak commitments represented in the voluntary agreements for all of these products demonstrate that they are not fit for purpose. Mandatory requirements might take time to develop, but are certainly worth the wait when it comes to actual results.

In the context of the Green Deal and with the ambition of the European Union to be climate neutral by 2050, can we really afford to waste time on industry self-regulation instead of defining ambitious regulations benefiting consumers and the environment?