This week we’re talking about… universal chargers

The European Commission looks set to name USB C as the standard mobile charger

You might have been surprised to learn that the European Commission is considering enforcing a standard charger for mobile devices, from smartphones and tablets to headphones. Surprised because the majority of those devices already use a standard charger and have done for some time.

First it was micro USB, but in the past few years the devices have started transitioning to USB C.

This isn’t the first time this has come up; the European Commission was looking at this very subject a decade ago. There was a point when every phone maker had their own charger, and there was very little cross-compatibility. In a decade, we’ve gone from 30 types of chargers to three. In a 2018 European Commission study, half the chargers sold with phones had a micro USB connection; 29 per cent had USB C connection; and a further 21 per cent had a lightning connector.

But there are still some holdouts, and to persuade them, the commission is now looking at new laws that will make all chargers interoperable.


What is the European Commission proposing?

The European Commission is seeking to establish USB C as a common charger for devices, including phones, tablets, handheld games consoles, headphones and portable speakers.

That would make chargers interoperable across the board.

On top of that, where there are various fast charging standards for phones; the commission will also seek to make these interoperable.

The third part is unbundling the charger from the phone. Consumers will be able to buy a new device without a charger, cutting the number of unwanted, unused chargers cluttering up our drawers.

If EU member states back the proposals, companies will have two years to adapt their devices.

Why are they proposing it?

In short? Electronic waste. We generate a massive amount of e-waste every year. According to the European Commission, cutting the production and disposal of chargers will reduce electronic waste by almost a thousand tonnes every year.

Not only could it lead to environmental benefits, it could give consumers annual savings of up to €250 million


What difference will it make?

When it comes to phones, tablets and headphones, many manufacturers have already ditched the proprietary chargers, adopting USB C. It will have most impact on Apple, which uses its own lightning connector on its phones, although it has changed some of its iPads, including the new Mini, the iPad Pro and the iPad Air, to USB C.

Aren’t companies already trying to cut down on electronic waste?

On the face of it, yes. Phone companies have started taking unnecessary accessories, such as charging plugs and headphones out of the box, shipping the phones with the handset and the charging cable only.

The jury is out on the environmental impact of that move though: it certainly cuts costs for tech companies.

Are there any loopholes?

Of course. The proposed regulations will only apply to wired chargers. Phones that rely solely on wireless chargers will not be subject to the proposed rule. That isn’t an issue at the moment, but with two years to implement the changes, who knows where we will be?

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist