After ten years of hard work to try and promote innovation and consumer welfare, the European Union (E.U.) has revealed its bold plan: to force device manufacturers to use a single charging standard.
The Eurocrats are now hard at work patting themselves on the back for this glorious outcome of the decade-long "trilogue on the common charger." By 2024, wired devices sold in the E.U. must use the USB-C charging port and will not be sold with a charger by default. This is intended to "curb e-waste" and give consumers "more choice." Can you feel the innovation? Never say the E.U. does not dream big.
Unless you are one of the 56 million or so Europeans who use iPhones, not much will change. Private companies have converged on common standards for years. Most, if not all, of your devices might already use the nifty USB-C charger, which in addition to being small and symmetrical, allows fast charging to boot.
And some Apple products, like my own MacBook Air, use the USB-C standard too. It is nice to be able to seamlessly charge my phone and my laptop without hassling with extensions.
The problem is the iProducts. Most, but not all, of these famously (or infamously) use Apple's proprietary Lightning connector, which is incompatible with other companies' devices. iPhones, iPads, and iPods usually use Lightning connectors, which means people need to have a separate charger for these specific products.
The Lightning charger has few fans today. It's proprietary, it doesn't always allow fast charging, and you'll pay a lot for the privilege. Haters—and there are many—will be tempted to applaud this move by the E.U.
But as usual, the E.U.'s meddling will almost certainly have the opposite effect that it is intending. Instead of "limiting e-waste," this ban will create millions of useless chargers that will soon head to a landfill.
E-waste is a retro-sounding name for old electronic equipment that won't be reused or recycled. It goes straight to the dump where it sits and maybe leeches nasty chemicals into the ground. The E.U. is making hay over chargers, but most e-waste includes larger items like appliances as well as out-of-date computer equipment, lighting, and HVAC apparatuses.
Obviously, banning something makes it useless. Those Lightning chargers that might have otherwise gotten a few more years of service out of them will now be heading to the dump. "E-waste experts" agree that the E.U. ban will lead to a short-term increase in useless cables languishing in landfills.
But is this near-term cable culling worth it? Maybe it will lead to a dramatic reduction in messy wire drawers at home over the long term if everyone must use the same charging standard.
Although that rat's nest of old chargers in your bedside table is aesthetically salient (and awful), it's apparently not a big contributor to this ballyhooed e-waste problem. According to the 2020 Global E-Waste Monitor, chargers represent some 0.1 percent of the 53.6 million metric tons of tech garbage produced each year.
As usual, the E.U. is spending a lot of time and effort on something that is not that big of a problem in the grand scheme of things. Really, the Eurocrats probably produced more waste—both e- and analog—during its decade-long pursuit of plenipotentiaries, multi-language reports and brochures, PowerPoint presentations, and flights to and from Brussels every few quarters trying to tackle this mechanical menace.
Apple is not a big fan of the rules, having argued that the prohibition on non-USB-C chargers will limit the kinds of innovations they can offer their customers. This might not convince the well-sized anti-Lightning community, but it is a little rich that professional bureaucrats who have not so much as opened a business in their lives would deign to tell some of the world's most successful technology companies how to design their products.
Well, maybe Apple can skip the port altogether. The new E.U. rules would only apply to wired charging devices. If devices are outfitted with wireless charging, as Apple has been rumored to be considering, they are exempt, and could presumably be serviced by that company's own proprietary charging standard. So much for limiting waste! The E.U. might have to go back to the drawing board for another ten years. This has been their timeline so far.
The USB-C mandate is not as far-reaching or innovation killing as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy law whose main effect has been to pepper internet users with cookie agreement popups. But they evince a similar bias against open innovation.
Europe tends to watch from the sidelines as mostly foreign companies grow and lead in their industries. Years later, they pass laws to restrain that growth in weird and counter-productive ways. Then they wait for the next big growth area before they start the process again.
It's a shame that the E.U. does not look to the ways that its own laws restrain innovation and consumer welfare.
If the august multinational governance body for the European continent was truly interested in cutting down on "e-waste," it would do better to look at the ways that their many "green regulations" limit the effectiveness and life of large appliances that somehow end up dying a lot earlier than they used to.
Subpar refrigerators and washing machines take up a lot more space and waste a lot more resources than the humble cell phone charger. Intentionally making large appliances worse means we go through them much faster than in decades past. The way to cut down on e-waste is to allow manufacturers to make the best products possible. This is not the stance that the E.U. and most developed countries take towards large appliances, unfortunately.
It's all very frustrating, but this is the way of the bureaucrat. Their regulatory standards are far from "green" or "innovative," but it's also not immediately obvious how they lower our ways of life.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.