One Charger to Charge Them All: EU Proposes USB-C Becomes the Standard
Hoping to curb e-waste and let consumers have one cord to charge their devices, the European Commission (EC) suggests USB-C should become standard. How could this affect e-waste, designs, and engineers?
The EC has recently proposed that a standard charging port for electronic devices would be beneficial and has pushed new legislation promoting USB-C. The EC aims for USB-C to be standard across “all smartphones, tablets, cameras headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogame consoles.”
USB charging port types. Image used courtesy of Electronic Partners
If enacted, how might these changes impact major companies, electrical engineers, and environmentalism across the EU?
Terms of Legislation
Last year, consumers bought over 420 million electronics in the EU, and users threw out roughly 11,000 metric tons of e-waste during that same period, with similar figures recorded annually.
Alarmingly, less than 40% of the EU’s e-waste is recycled, leaving the rest to pile up and cause contamination within its final resting places. Germany, the most populous EU member, has typically produced the most waste in total. Meanwhile, key member states like France, Denmark, and The Netherlands regularly produce over 21 pounds of e-waste per person each year.
Since numbers are constantly growing, there is a massive moral impetus to slash this e-waste production. Millions of tons of used, unrecycled electronics have historically been sent to African and Asian countries. As recently as 2019, the US-based Basel Action Network (BAN) found that over 352,000 tons of discarded electronics reach developing nations annually.
An example of the ratio of e-waste types. Image used courtesy of Mmereki et al
The EC has opined that charging consolidation could help curb this waste accumulation. After all, unused and discarded chargers account for about 11,000 tons of yearly e-waste. However, while it’s a noble pursuit, purposefully or otherwise, this constitutes a relative drop in the bucket of overall EU e-waste production. This latest legislation isn’t a silver bullet. It constitutes what’s become a piecemeal approach to a waste reduction across the region.
Who truly stands to win with this legislation? Short answer: the consumer.
The bill comes at a time when the average consumer uses roughly three different chargers, yet 38% of people face charging difficulties stemming from non-compatibility.
Purchasing new chargers is an annoyance and expensive over more extended periods. Device owners also lack:
- A brand-agnostic way to charge their devices, regardless of their function.
- Accessible fast-charging methods from one device to another.
- The ability to purchase new devices without extra chargers included—Apple being an exception, though many have questioned the environmental motivations behind that widespread change.
- General, basic knowledge about the mechanisms behind charging and their devices’ unique charging capabilities.
Charging aside, it’s worth noting that USB-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data much faster than their predecessors or proprietary alternatives like Lightning. That can be a huge plus while transferring media of varied types and file sizes between devices.
The EU estimates that consumers could save €250 million by choosing to buy charger-less electronic packages. Overall, consumers spend approximately €2.4 billion yearly on extra chargers made only for specific devices.
However, these aren’t the sole impacts. Charging-port legislation will directly impact the engineering and product-design fields in interesting ways, positively and potentially negatively.
USB-C and Electrical Engineering
Perhaps the obvious eye is initially turned to Apple, whose iPhones designs have long resisted the call for USB-C standardization. While the company’s latest product lines have adopted USB-C charging (minus the iPad Air), Apple’s biggest seller remains a holdout.
The company sold 9.6 million phones across Europe in Q2 2021 alone. The charger lock-in has long been an issue for legislators and consumers. Additionally, newer iPhones no longer come with a charger; buyers aren’t offered the option, something the EC is trying to change.
The motivations behind this are unclear. Does the iPhone’s development pipeline already denote a future switch? Would a notable internal reconfiguration be necessary—outside of the device’s existing chassis—to accommodate USB-C? Finally, would losing the royalties Apple now enjoys under the MFi charger-certification program be too a bitter pill to swallow?
There’s compelling, albeit anecdotal, evidence suggesting that switching from Lightning 2.0 to USB-C isn’t technically challenging. By reverse-engineering the Lightning port’s components and exposing the PCB, a robotics engineer recently converted a Lightning port to USB-C.
The prototype for converting the Lightning cable to USB-C. Image used courtesy of Ken Pillonel
The solution, omitting expenses, is more “crude” than a finalized design—requiring wire soldering and circuit board connections—yet prove that USB-C is viable on iPhone X models circa 2017.
How would a switch to USB-C look at scale?
Apple is explicitly mentioned here since the majority of Europe’s leading flagships leverage USB-C charging. It may be the case that although EE teams recognize the implicit benefits of one technology, corporate priorities favor something entirely different.
Understandably, Apple might feel targeted by this measure. Conversely, European Commissioner for Trade, Thierry Breton, insists this isn’t the case. Another part of the battle rejects the idea that USB-C is useful for “power users” only.
There are absolutely internal design considerations at play. Electronics will need new board designs and internal power connections to accommodate USB-C charging. Engineers will have to perform new testing to ensure effectiveness and reliability. Hardware swaps aren’t guaranteed to be 100% compatible. While Lightning is proprietary, there are durability pros to using a prong-less, female port.
That said, moving to USB-C could benefit tinkerers and third-party repair shops in general. The sheer variation in charging technologies has made it necessary to stockpile a variety of tools, which is expensive.
Consequently, choosing the right supplies also became more complicated. Standardization can simplify the lives of these professionals, hobbyists, and businesses.
Our USB-C Future
However, there’s an argument that USB-C standardization could hinder technological progress. If companies pour resources into making that switch, how enthused might they be about developing (or adopting) the next charging standard?
The world of technology is always moving. Ports have also always come and gone. Apple’s 30-pin connector has faded into yesteryear, after all.
Additionally, the future utility of micro and mini-USB connectors is debated. With legislation like the EC’s, perhaps fewer companies will have to choose between what’s technically superior and what’s most profitable.
It’s unclear whether USB-C will delay upcoming innovations across entire devices. Thankfully, our technological history as a whole has shown that designers, companies, and consumers are adaptable.
Standardization can make sense in some circumstances, however if the EC had decided to standardize on the USB micro a few years ago, the USB-C would now be illegal in Europe or might never have come about.
I recall when 56k modems came about (youngsters might not know what a modem is!) - way ahead of the agreed standards at the time but the technology revolutionized the internet at the time.
Fancy a USB-D? How cool will that be? We don’t yet know what that might be and arguably it might never happen under the dead hand of the bureaucracy of 27 countries?
Standardization of power connectors is an interesting concept, considering that for at least 20 years the exact opposite was the normal mode. So much engineering design effort was put into creating connectors different from all others. So using any version of a USB connector is a total change. But I anticipate that the result will be that devices will communicate and only accept the USB charger sold by a particular manufacturer, much the same as my HP laptop will only accept an HP charger. So while the consumer will certainly benefit from the agnostic charging connection, it is not likely to be as beneficial as it could be unless there are laws demanding it. And “good luck” on that!!