One Cable Fits All

EU proposes ruling on common charger to tackle electronic waste

Those old enough to remember the turn of the century will probably recall how most handset models had unique chargers. Even devices made by the same manufacturer often had different chargers. Forgetting a charger when on the road caused a touch of anxiety, with the frantic hope of finding someone nearby with the same phone model. But in the pre-smartphone era, most phones didn’t need to be charged every day.

Over the years, device makers did harmonize to some degree, encouraged by regulators around the globe and by consumers’ frustration, especially as smartphones turned out to be power-hungry.

There are essentially three hard-wired charging types currently used: USB-C, Micro USB and Apple’s Lightning port. There are also several wireless charging solutions, with Qi the dominant one.

Now the EU is pushing for a single charging standard, a move that would have implications for manufacturers, and particularly for Apple, a company that’s known for favouring proprietary solutions. Apple uses its own Lighting port rather than USB in its iPhone models, although it did begin adding support for the Qi wireless charging standard when it launched its iPhone 8 in September 2017.

The EU has calculated that chargers account for more than 50,000 tonnes of electronic waste within the EU region alone. The bloc is encouraging device makers to standardize in order to reduce the environmental impact of an industry that sells almost 2 billion phones a year worldwide.

Most major phone manufacturers including Apple had signed a voluntary EU proposal, but this has only been partially successful. Apple is lobbying against the proposal, voicing its concerns that legislation can counter innovation. This is despite the fact that Apple has been adopting USB-C in its iPads and laptops, and may be eyeing a switch to USB-C in future iPhones, according to reports.

We note that there are several fast-charging solutions including Qualcomm’s Quick Charge, Oppo’s VOOC and MediaTek’s Pump Express, which use proprietary technologies that exceed the previous wattage limits of USB charging specifications set by the USB Implementers Forum. The latter’s new USB Power Delivery standard includes a Programmable Power Supply for faster charging.

However, the EU makes a good point that many of its citizens can relate to: people are drowning in cables and with each new device they buy comes another wire in the box. Many feel as though they’re paying for something they already have. A way forward could be to sell chargers as separate accessories, given that the vast majority of phones sold now are upgrades, and people, particularly those in the advanced European market, have a few working cables in their homes and offices.

The European Commission will continue to deliberate the matter over the coming weeks, with a vision of a standard cable for all.

But this is just the beginning. People are becoming more and more environmentally conscious, and reducing unnecessary so-called e-waste is a cause they’re likely to embrace. Selling fewer cables is just one small step that the industry will have to take on the long road to environmental sustainability.