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TECH

What you need to know about the EU’s plan for a uniform phone charger

The European Union has approved a new regulation that would force tech companies to use a standard charger for mobile phones and electronic devices. What does this mean?

What you need to know about the EU's plan for a uniform phone charger
The European Union will require all manufacturers use the same USB Type C for charging ports in certain devices. (Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash)

The European Parliament has approved an agreement establishing a single charging solution for frequently used small and medium-sized portable electronic devices. The law will make it mandatory for specific devices that are rechargeable via a wired cable to be equipped with a USB Type-C port.

The rules have been debated for a while, and the announcement of the agreement has caused controversy, especially among tech companies and enthusiasts. US giant Apple has repeatedly lobbied against the standardisation, saying it halts innovation.

The EU says that the new rules will lead to more re-use of chargers and “help consumers save up to €250 million a year on unnecessary charger purchases”. Disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to represent about 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, the bloc says.

So, what exactly are the changes?

Which products will be affected?

According to the European Parliament, the new rules are valid for small and medium-sized portable electronic devices. This includes mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, earbuds, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers that are rechargeable via a wired cable.

Laptops will also have to be adapted, the EU says.

Those devices will have to be equipped with a USB Type-C port regardless of their manufacturer.

When will the changes come?

For most devices, the changes are set to come by autumn of 2024. However, the date is not yet set because the regulations need to go to other proceedings within the EU bureaucracy.

After the summer recess, The EU’s Parliament and Council need to formally approve the agreement before publication in the EU Official Journal. It enters into force 20 days after publication, and its provisions start to apply after 24 months, hence the “autumn 2024” expectation.

Rules for laptops are a bit different, and manufacturers will have to adapt their products to the requirements by 40 months after the entry into force of the laws.

Where are the rules valid?

The rules will be valid for products sold or produced in the European Union and its 27 member countries. But, of course, they will likely affect manufacturers and promote more considerable scale changes.

The USB-C cable, with the rounded edges, will be the standard for charging in the EU (Photo by مشعال بن الذاهد on Unsplash)

Why the uniform USB Type-C?

The bloc said the uniform charger is part of a broader EU effort to make products more sustainable, reduce electronic waste, and make consumers’ lives easier.

“European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device”, EU Parliament’s rapporteur Alex Agius Saliba said.

USB Type-C is a standard of charging that has been around for a while but still is one of the best options currently in the market. Also known as USB-C, it allows for reliable, inexpensive, and fast charging. A USB-C port can also be input or output, meaning that it can both send and receive charges and data.

Unlike other ports, it can be the same on both ends of the wire (making it easier and more universal in its use). It can also power devices and sends data much faster.

USB-C can also be used for video and audio connections, so some external monitors can charge your laptop and show your screen simultaneously with the same cable.

What criticism is there?

The project is not without criticism, most vocally from US tech giant Apple, a company that famously has its own charging standard, the “lightning” connection.

Apple claims that forcing a standardisation will prevent innovation, holding all companies to the same technology instead of allowing for experimentation. Still, Apple itself has been swapping to USB-C. Its iPads have already dropped the lightning standard. Its newer laptops can now be charged with the MagSafe proprietary connector and USB-C.

Apple iPhones are still charged with the company’s lightning ports – or wirelessly (Photo by Brandon Romanchuk on Unsplash)

The company’s popular earbuds and peripherals (including keyboards and mice) all charge with lightning. And, of course, the iPhone, Apple’s smartphone, also uses the company’s connection for charging.

While there have been rumours that Apple is working on new iPhones with USB-C connection (though definitely not for the next launch this year’s), the company could go away with wired charging altogether. Instead, like many tech manufacturers, Apple is improving its wireless charging solutions, even creating products dedicated to its MagSafe charging.

It won’t be completely free from the EU regulation if it does that, though. This is because the rules approved by the EU also allow the European Commission to develop so-called “delegated acts” concerning wireless charging. The delegated acts are faster processes that can be applied directly without being put to the vote.

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ENVIRONMENT

Norway gives new lease of life to old oil platforms

At an industrial yard in southwestern Norway, decommissioned oil platforms are slowly being dismantled for a second life in the circular economy.

Norway gives new lease of life to old oil platforms

Three gigantic disused platforms stand on the docks on the island municipality of Stord where they are being taken apart bit by bit — as much as 98 percent of their total 40,000 tonnes is suitable for recycling.

“If you come here in a year-and-a-half, you will see nothing left”, says Sturla Magnus, a senior official at Aker Solutions, a group specialised in both building and dismantling oil platforms.

Behind him, workmen in hardhats and fluorescent jackets are busy on the three structures: the platform from the Gyda field that was closed in 2020, and two others that have paid their dues at the Valhall field still in operation.

A worker cuts down a decommissioned oil rig.
A worker cuts metal from a decommissioned oil platform in a yard in Stord. It could have been their cemetery, but in this construction site in southwestern Norway, old oil platforms, emblems of the age of fossil fuels, are experiencing a new life stamped with the seal of the circular economy. Photo by Alexiane Lerouge / AFP.

Once the security inspections are complete and the electrical equipment and dangerous materials like asbestos have been removed, the remainder — the giant, empty shells — are left to powerful cutting machines.

The most attractive waste are the tens of thousands of tonnes of high-quality steel, which can be reused on new oil platforms, other industrial structures or offshore wind turbines.

“This is steel that has to stand up to the harsh weather conditions in the North Sea. In other words, this is the best there is”, says Thomas Nygard, project director for decommissioning at Aker Solutions.

While the company is a player in the highly polluting oil industry and still makes more oil installations than it demolishes, it is in favour of
recycling. According to various estimates, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of recycled steel generates 58-70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a kilo of new steel.

10,000 installations to dismantle

The North Sea is one of the oldest offshore oil and gas basins in the world and is gradually being depleted. Many of the oil platforms there are coming to the end of their life spans.

In a 2021 report, the industry association Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) — which has since changed name to Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) — forecast that more than one million tonnes of North Sea platforms would need to be dismantled by the end of the decade.

That is a large market, and one that is growing. Several years ago, OGUK’s forecast was for 200,000 tonnes.

“If you look globally, it’s probably close to 10,000 installations which are going to at some point in time come back to shore”, Magnus says. Aker Solutions’ current workload is scheduled through 2028.

Meanwhile, some platforms are being maintained despite their advanced age. One of Norway’s oldest platforms, Statfjord A, has been in use since 1979. It was due to be taken out of service in 2022, but oil giant Equinor decided in 2020 to extend its life span until 2027.

The same is true for two other platforms in the same field, Statfjord B and C, which are only a few years younger, but have been extended until 2035.

The reprieve is due to the remaining oil reserves which are believed to be “considerable”, a decision sure to have been sugar-coated by soaring oil prices.

Environmental stakes

Nevertheless, even some environmental activists are reluctant to see the platforms disappear entirely.

The earliest installations were made with legs of concrete — metal was preferred for later models — and according to the Norwegian branch of Friends of the Earth, the cement made for “fantastic” artificial corals because of its rough, pock-marked surface.

“All those who have worked on a platform will tell you: there are a lot of big fish that live nearby because there’s no industrial fishing and the fish can grow to be up to 10 years old”, says the group’s marine biologist, Per-Erik Schulze.

The organisation has therefore called for the cement pillars to be left at sea, difficult as they are to uproot. The rest can be dismantled and marine reserves created around the sites.

After siphoning the depths of the oceans for decades, Norway’s oil sector could thereby end up helping to protect them — even if just a little.

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