When Empty Promises Won’t Do – Why regulation is needed to end built-in obsolescence of printers
Printers have grown to become an archetype of today’s throwaway culture, in spite of over a decade of EU-endorsed industry commitments to make them more sustainable. If the European Commission is to stand by its promise to curb the built-in obsolescence of our everyday tech, it must fall out of love with manufacturers’ promises.
The woeful tech of printers and why it’s everyone’s problem
Together with booming printer sales, the lockdown-induced increase in homeworking and schooling has unsurprisingly brought the woeful, unreliable tech of printers back into the limelight. Often sold at a loss in order to recoup profits through the sales of cartridges (or toners in the case of laser printers), home printers – and their consumables – are hardly ever designed with repairability or longevity in mind.
This leads to vast amounts of short-lived imaging equipment being dumped on the EU market, and then added to the ever-growing pile of e-waste. Today, some 80% of printers are replaced by users within the first three to four years after purchase, around as often as jeans. In addition to being a bad deal for the consumer, this is a serious environmental issue too.
Printers at the heart of e-waste tsunami
The environmental impacts of printing equipment stem from the resources used for their manufacture, the energy used to run them and the impacts of these products at their end of life. In addition, printer consumables (printer cartridges and paper) add to the environmental burden of these products. Our estimates show that around half a million tonnes of e-waste is produced from discarded imaging equipment in the EU every year, with just over 10 thousand tonnes – or 2% – subsequently reused in new products. Printer cartridges are, in turn, responsible for an additional 150 thousand tonnes of toxic e-waste, of which around half is estimated to be either incinerated or landfilled. In total, the amount of e-waste associated with the use of printers that is incinerated or landfilled in Europe every year is equal to the weight of around 150 thousand cars, far exceeding the amounts associated with the use of smartphones or tablets. ECOS calculations show that the amount of annual waste arising from discarded imaging equipment and consumables is almost 9 times higher than that from redundant smartphones, and over 20 times higher than the amount from wasted tablet computers.
Printers have grown to become the archetype of today’s throwaway culture. Worse still, their short lifetimes are often dictated by purposeful design choices. Such built-in obsolescence manifests itself not only through the poor design of printers, but also through the manifold techniques – including the so-called ‘security chips’ and firmware updates – used by the manufacturers to prevent consumers from using refilled, third-party, and remanufactured cartridges. Such practices have been subjected to a number of lawsuits in EU Member States over the past years. However, the use of ‘security chips’ has become common in most printers today, with only a sporadic number of exceptions remaining.
The winding roads towards change
The environmental impact of printers has not gone unnoticed by the European Commission. In fact, the regulator has been looking into ways of reducing environmental footprint of these devices ever since the early 2010s. In 2011, the Commission decided to endorse a voluntary agreement (VA) signed by the industry as an alternative to a dedicated ecodesign regulation, thus prioritising manufacturers’ voluntary commitments over hard regulation with the expectation that this will deliver on policy objectives faster and more cost-effectively. Ten years down the line and one round of review of agreed commitments later, it is clear that this was not the right choice.
To trigger change, a review of the agreement was launched back in 2018, aiming to identify ways in which the existing set of commitments could be revamped – especially concerning printer and cartridge reuse, repair and remanufacture.
After industry’s proposal to leave out any requirements related to printer cartridges from the text of the self-regulatory measure (raising eyebrows of everyone involved), the European Commission gave the industry six months to reach an ambitious voluntary agreement or see a dedicated regulation introduced – similarly to the ones that exist for household appliances such as washing machines and televisions. Over one year later, the industry finally came forward with an updated – although hardly improved – text in the spring of this year. The assessment of the submitted text by the Commission’s services has been ongoing since then. The crucial decision on whether to back the proposed text as an EU-recognised initiative or to bring forward a regulatory instrument instead is, at long last, expected before 2022.
Minimum ambition, maximum consumption
The decision of the European Commission promises to be a rather straightforward affair, although one with tremendous implications. Jam-packed with exceptions, omissions and loopholes, the proposed voluntary agreement has evidently been drafted to preserve the current business model that revolves around ever-growing consumption with little to no consideration of consumers or the environment. Hardly any of the commitments come with resolute provisions ensuring they will be followed, and virtually none set the level of ambition beyond the bare minimum. Endorsing the agreement proposed would therefore be a serious mistake.
The flaws in the text are many and critical. To begin with, the self-regulatory measure proposed will, by default, not apply to a number of relevant businesses that decided not to support the initiative. This includes not only some of the most notable printer manufacturers such as Ricoh and Konica Minolta, but also the vast majority of businesses that work to give used cartridges a second life, since only four cartridge remanufacturers have committed to support the initiative at present.
This comes as little surprise considering the mechanism that has been proposed to incentivise cartridge reuse under the VA. Instead of committing to supply ‘safety chips’ as spare parts or to provide other tools for their easy recalibration as a default option, printer manufacturers propose to establish an obscure system of bilateral commercial agreements with the selected remanufacturers of printer consumables that are signatories to the VA. What exactly these agreements are to contain is, of course, not detailed. The only thing that is made clear is the complete lack of transparency – neither the European Commission nor any other stakeholder are to have the right to lay their eyes on the details. To ensure that the number of such bilateral agreements remains limited, the text of the VA gives no incentive whatsoever for printer manufacturers to actually sign them. Offering an agreement that is then rejected by a cartridge remanufacturer (because of commercial terms that cannot be accepted, for instance) is proposed to be good enough for compliance purposes.
A festival of loopholes
From the business-as-usual perspective, this alone is a stroke of genius, but the text of the VA is a gift that keeps on giving – to anyone that cares to read it. The VA is in fact a full-on hotchpotch of loopholes to cater to everyone’s needs. No requirements are introduced for scanners, repairability requirements are proposed not to apply to any of the printers sold for under 300 euros (which is most of the printers purchased by consumers today), and the use of firmware and ‘security chips’ to prevent the use of third-party cartridges is proposed to be permitted in cases where a simple sticker on the printer informs the consumer of this, for instance.
The commitments themselves, too, are written in ways which do little else than legitimise status quo. Take repairability, for instance. While listing a number of spare parts that are to be provided by manufacturers, the commitments omit any mention of the target group, and leave out a number of critical components known to be responsible for common failures of printers. Nominally providing some parts to a few selected repairers would, according to the proposed text, be enough to claim compliance, which, it goes without saying, would have little to no effect on the actual repairability of printing devices.
Similar examples abound all over the text, especially if we consider areas that the VA should address but does not. For instance, no requirements are proposed in relation to minimum post-consumer recycled content in printers to stimulate the much-needed uptake of recycled materials, and no restrictions are agreed on halogenated flame retardants that prevent the recycling of plastics, which make up the bulk of these products. To top things off, all of the above is combined with an overarching enforcement mechanism that relies on nothing more than promises. For most products, compliance is ensured by random product-level checks by relevant Member State authorities. The VA, however, proposes to verify compliance with the proposed requirements – you probably guessed it! – without any actual testing of products. Instead, a link to the website or a declaration by the company is to be considered sufficient.
Pressure mounts, but will it be enough?
The snapshot discussed here is not all gloomy, luckily. For starters, the fact that Commission services are assessing the agreement more thoroughly than they have in the past is certainly good news – and we have made sure that none of the loopholes will go unnoticed. The increasing support among policymakers for initiatives that back the consumers’ right to repair, too, provides a backdrop to be optimistic.
A fair dose of caution is needed, however. Even when all the arguments seem to point to the need for regulatory intervention, the EU has a history of prioritising half-baked voluntary initiatives – whatever their actual merit. The pending decision on printers will be an important test case on the seriousness of the EU regulator’s intentions to turn the page on disposable tech. What is clear is that this, without doubt, requires the Commission to fall out of love with promises and be assertive, one regulation at a time.