Europe calls for standard charging cable

Have you ever had a broken charger, and looked all over the place for a spare only to realize that it has a different adapter to the one you need?

No? Well, it has happened to me many times.

Back in the day, when mobile phones were first released, all chargers were unique. One cord was tailored entirely for one specific phone. Unless you had the exact same phone as someone else, there was no chance of borrowing their charger.

Since the release of the smartphone, chargers have adapted (pun intended).

This week, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution urging lawmakers to set a standard for charging cables. The votes, 582-40 in favor, has shown a high demand to switch to a universal plug across all smartphones.

The European Commission would have to draft a bill and vote on it in July for the resolution to become law across Europe. There was resounding support throughout the EU Parliament, as seen by the 582-40 vote, due to the desire to reduce "e-waste and consumer frustration."

Is Europe trying to outlaw Apple's Lightning Cable?

In today's fast-paced digital age, chargers currently use USB-C, micro-USB, or Apple's Lightning Cable, with some exceptions. The vast majority of the industry uses micro-USB. However, there has been a slow adoption of USB-C since its release in 2014. Apple's proprietary Lightning Cable would be the most affected by the legislation.

"We believe regulation that forces conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphone stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole," Apple responded in a statement. "We hope the Commission will continue to seek a solution that does not restrict the industry's ability to innovate and bring exciting new technology to customers."

A fragmented tech market

In the early days of mobile phones, it quickly became apparent that unique chargers were causing more frustration than necessary.

These days, most charging cords have a USB connection, making access easy on other devices, such as a laptop, speakers, or car systems, not just a wall outlet. And the connectors have gotten much smaller, so your phone no longer has a gaping access point free to collect dust and other nasties. But still, if you bought a new phone, it is standard to expect a charger to come with it, even if the phone has the same connector as your previous.

It's likely that a cable would then be left in the package, or the old one was thrown out and replaced with the new. Either way, there is wastage.

Most smartphones tend to use a variation of USB connections, including mini-USB, micro-USB, and USB-C. These are high quality, easily accessible, and non-proprietary.

The release of Apple's iPhone 7 received outrage from consumers. Apple made the headphone jack obsolete on the iPhone 7, onwards. By adapting its proprietary Lightning Cable to all of its products and increasing input to other devices, iPhones were only able to function with a Lightning Cable. That meant, if you needed to use headphones, you could only use Apple headphones with a Lightning Cable jack.

Nowadays, hundreds and thousands of old chargers sit dormant in untouched junk drawers of homes worldwide. With this vote, Europe wants the tech industry to set a standard, where consumers don't need a new charger whenever they buy a device only because the connector isn't compatible.

"Continuing fragmentation of the market for chargers for mobile phones and other small and medium-sized electronic devices translates into an increase in e-waste and consumer frustration," said the European Parliament on the matter.

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste refers to discarded electrical or electronic devices that are no longer working or wanted.

According to the European Parliament's common charger resolution, consumer trends in the past 10 years show growing multi-device ownership and short lifecycles for some radio equipment, for example, smartphones. Older equipment is often replaced due to being outdated, and these trends lead to the production of additional e-waste, particularly chargers.

Device chargers are one of the most common contributors to e-waste. Because every new device comes with a charger, it can be seen as disposable. Every new upgrade means a new charger, but should this be the norm?

"50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated globally per year, with an average of more than 6 kg per person. Total e-waste generation in Europe in 2016 was 12.3 million metric tons, equivalent to 16.6 kg on average per inhabitant... This represents an unnecessary environmental footprint that can be reduced."

The future of smartphones

Since the first release of the smartphone, it's no surprise that devices continue to develop into highly efficient handheld machines, with new features added constantly.

One feature that has stayed consistent and relevant since the beginning of handheld mobile phones is the humble yet powerful SMS. Relaying a message directly to a recipient in an instant. Instead of becoming obsolete in a world of OTT messaging, VoIP, and video calls, texting is still the leader in P2P and A2P communication. And that won't change anytime soon, even with different charging cords!

Europe is the global trendsetter for tech legislation. Consider the omnipresent GDPR that affects all sites that have connections with Europe, actionable since 2018. Now, pushing for a reduction in e-waste through common charging cable regulation. In today's ever-evolving tech era, what will come next?