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PRemature Obsolescence Multi-Stakeholder Product Testing Program

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PROMPT (PRemature Obsolescence Multi-Stakeholder Product Testing Program)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-10-31

Resource use and waste generation related to electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) has been significantly increasing in the past decades. In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million tonnes (Mt) of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). In the EU, WEEE is considered to be one of the fastest-growing waste streams and is expected to grow to more than 12 million tonnes by 2020.

Different pieces of EU legislation, such as the Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE Directive) and the Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS Directive) have been put in place to organise collection schemes for WEEE, to restrict the use of hazardous substances and to incentivise WEEE recycling. However, WEEE is a very heterogeneous and complex waste stream and many critical materials still cannot be recovered in recycling processes. Therefore, a promising way to keep precious resources within the economy and to reduce waste generation lies in the extension of the useful lifetime of EEE. Longer use of EEE has the potential to generate new economic activities, spur innovation among manufacturers, reduce costs and inconvenience for consumers, and deliver environmental and societal benefits through reduced waste and consumption of primary raw materials. Product lifetime extension goes hand in hand with the European Commission’s strategy to move towards a Circular Economy and is anchored in a variety of roadmaps and directives .

The term ‘premature obsolescence’ describes the phenomenon that products cease to be used at a point in their lifetime that arrives too soon. Premature obsolescence can have technical and non-technical underlying reasons. From a technical point of view, flaws in the quality and design of a product can lead to low reliability and a lack of reparability. Non-technical reasons for premature obsolescence can be linked to factors such as technological progress, advertising and fashion, consumption patterns and trends, status, among others.

The main objective of PROMPT is to develop an independent testing programme to support the assessment of the longevity of consumer products when they are put on the market. The testing programme will cover major aspects related to longevity. It has the goal to enable testing bodies, consumer organisations, market surveillance authorities and other interested stakeholders to rely on tangible definitions and to methodically assess premature obsolescence. It will contribute to ongoing and future standardisation efforts and provide designers and policymakers with recommendations on improving durability and reparability of products, empower consumers to make informed choices, and create awareness on market conditions.
In the beginning, the main objective was to start collecting necessary data required to tackle the complex topic of premature obsolescence from different angles and through a multi-disciplinary approach. This includes direct consumer feedback, information on the state-of-the-art of testing and rating, the product design perspective related to repair and reuse, the environmental perspective as well as the user, market and legal perspective. Taking into account different decision criteria from the data collection exercise (e.g. consumer feedback, market trends, environmental considerations, ongoing standardisation work, etc.) the consortium agreed to focus on smartphones, (smart) televisions, washing machines and vacuum cleaners for the testing programme.

One of the main tasks during the first 18 months was also to improve and to extend the Belgian consumer contact point “Trop Vite Usé” to a European level. Since 2016, Test Achats has been tackling the issue of premature obsolescence through its online contact point, which gives consumers the possibility to report devices that have become too quickly unusable. Within the PROMPT project, the consortium managed to extend this consumer contact point also to France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Large-scale consumer surveys following the same structures were also launched in Germany and in The Netherlands. The launch was accompanied by numerous media campaigns.

The project consortium advanced well on the different pillars of the project, which are product reliability, reparability as well as user and market aspects related to premature obsolescence. Several papers and deliverables were published and are available on the project website. In WP 3 (reliability analysis) the project team identified dominant failure modes and mechanisms for the different product groups. Based on this data existing tests have been reviewed in order to identify possible gaps in existing test programmes. In WP 4 (design for repair and reuse), the project partners developed a framework that relates design principles to the ease of diagnosis, maintenance and repair. For the diagnosis part, a comprehensive set of design principles was established. For the reparability part, a variety of products underwent testing procedures to analyse the effectivity of these procedures and to discover the sensitivity towards specific design features. In WP 5 (user and market aspects) the project team performed reviews of literature and consumer reports as well as a legal analysis. The team members conducted numerous interviews and organised workshops with experts to uncover design features that can feed in the testing programme. The results generated in WP2-5 will feed into the testing programme developed in WP 6, which will start in January 2021.

Interaction and collaboration with stakeholders play a major part in the PROMPT project for which reason the consortium organised and participated in several workshops, conferences and other events to increase its visibility and participate in technical and political debates. First project results are already feeding into ongoing policy work such as UNEP, DG GROW, DG JUST, DG CONNECT, ADEME.
Much progress beyond the state of the art could already be achieved within the first 18 months in PROMPT. With the web tool initially developed by Test Achats being available in five EU countries now, millions of consumers have the possibility to signal their faulty products to the national consumer organisations. Since the web tools are structured in a similar way, it becomes for the first time possible to analyse and to compare the data between different EU countries and identify similarities, but also differences. Knowing the main failures allows the consortium to screen for the underlying technical and non-technical reasons and to perform a gap analysis highlighting the main priorities to focus on for the testing programme. Innovative approaches in the diagnosis process show how design can contribute to facilitating repair performed by end-users. A structured approach towards non-technical reasons for premature product replacement resulted in a preliminary list of testing criteria that will be further refined and finally integrated into the testing programme. The project involves many stakeholders through the Advisory Board, the Supporting Board and other cross-project activities, allowing to share knowledge and to contribute to ongoing policy debates.

The impact and wider societal implications are challenging to measure, but the project is visible and well-received by stakeholders for which reason the impact can be considered as high.
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