13 October 2020

World Standards Day: Standards should protect the planet all year long

Every year, on 14 October we celebrate World Standards Day. But this time is special: the celebrations centre on how standards can help protect our planet. At ECOS, we believe that standards are essential tools to prevent a climate breakdown, which is why we have been advocating for environmentally ambitious standards for nearly 20 years.

Standards are everywhere – a fact that often goes unnoticed. They are the common rules, formats, formulas and test methods that manage our world. In simple words, standards are what we agree on doing in a common way. Paper sizes, units of measurement, power plugs… they are all based on standards.

Because they are omnipresent, standards have a great power to boost the ecological transition. They can help improve countless products and services – as long as they are developed taking the planet into consideration. They can help improve energy efficiency, reduce waste or facilitate repair and reuse of old devices, to name a few examples.

On the other hand, if the environment is ignored in the development of standards, the planet – and its people – will face the negative, and sometimes dangerous, consequences. 

Phasing out hazardous chemicals

The case of halogenated flame retardants is a perfect example of how bad standards can have daunting effects on us and our planet’s health. 

In the first decade of the 2000s, chemical industries pushed hard to introduce synthetic flame retardants in standards for casings of TVs, laptops and other pieces of electronic equipment. They argued that a simple candle could set one of these devices on fire.

Luckily, NGOs and research organisations from many countries managed to demonstrate that those risks were very infrequent in real life. On the other hand, exposure to these chemicals can lead to health problems such as neurological impairments in brain development and reproductive abnormalities.

After years of discussions within international standards bodies, it was decided that chemical flame retardants would not be part of production standards for ICT and home appliances.

Rules that can slash energy bills

 Standards not only define what products contain; they are also responsible for how product performance is measured. The Ecodesign Directive and Energy Labelling Regulation are true success stories of the European Union and a perfect example of the importance of standards. Energy labels for a wide range of home appliances are recognised by 93% of Europeans and four out of five people say labels have influenced their purchasing decisions, driving them to less wasteful products.

Going further, the Ecodesign Directive lays down the rules to ban products that use too much energy. From time to time, the EU raises the minimum performance bar, pushing the worst-performing appliances off the market. Ecodesign and energy labelling are estimated to save every European household about 490 euro every year.

But who decides how we measure energy consumption? This is not set by the European institutions but agreed among industrial players, with some influence from civil society organisations, within international and European standardisation bodies. For regulations to work well in practice, energy measurements must be carried out in close to real life conditions – TVs should be in the “on” mode, the fridge doors should open now and then, ovens should cook actual food – and those conditions are set by standards. In fact, new standards will even offer ways to measure other indicators such as repairability, recyclability or durability, which will hopefully become part of product labels in Europe in the coming years.

A (standard) charger to fit them all

Now let’s zoom in on a concrete product. Almost every smartphone sold in Europe comes with a charger, adding to the already full drawers of cables we all have at home. This is because there is no common charger for phones – or laptops, tablets, displays, e-readers, alarm clocks and portable game consoles. With a single charger for such small devices, 29,000 tonnes of e-waste could be avoided every year.  

There even is a charger connector that could rule them all: USB-type C. It is already present in many devices, but many hurdles need to be cleared before it becomes the one: for example, chargers have different voltage values, and different features that are not always clearly communicated. And standards will be essential to solving these problems. 

A new standard for USB type-C version 4.0 is expected to be put on the market next year, including features such as common delivery protocols (avoiding burning when powerful chargers are connected to small devices and vice versa) or clear communication guidelines to inform consumers on the features of the cables they find in shops. This enhanced standard could encourage policy makers to finally push for a single common charger in Europe, cutting tonnes of pointless waste.

 

Can we ‘protect the planet with standards’? Yes, they can help in many ways. However, standardisers need to make sure that this motto becomes a part of their business model permanently – not only on World Standards Day.

 

ECOS is co-funded by the European Commission and EFTA

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