EU is mandating Digital Product Passports

4 mins read

Whilst the technological progress we’ve seen over the past decades has been met with excitement, this also came with a lot of different devices being used by consumers on a daily basis.

Credit: Ahmad

It comes as no surprise then, that the waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is one of the fastest growing solid waste streams in the world. As older devices reach end-of-life (EOL), around 50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated globally every year, averaging some seven kilograms of e-waste per capita.

Due to growing concerns for our environment, the European Union (EU) has put steps in place to encourage a circular economy by bringing forward regulations that support more sustainable practices.

The Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) - part of the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) – is an initiative that will see a change in the design requirements of products in order to ensure their sustainability and circularity. This will also see the mandated implementation of Digital Product Passports (DPPs).

A DPP is a digital record which holds data about a product’s life cycle and credentials. Many businesses are already using DPPs to prove and improve the authenticity, traceability, and sustainability of their products. The EU’s aim with this mandate is to encourage more businesses to do the same to unlock more sustainable processes.

The mandate - set to take action as early as 2027 for batteries, with other priority industries to follow a few years later - will impact a wide range of industries and product categories placed on the EU market, regardless of where they were manufactured. The electronics and ICT industry is highlighted as a priority industry and as such will be one of the first that the mandate will apply to.

This article will explain how DPPs can be an innovative solution to minimise WEEE, and what businesses in the electronics industry can do to prepare for the regulation.

Background into the EU’s goals

E-waste is a growing environmental concern - this comes not only from EOL products, but also all the compounding waste generated by the manufacturing process. The UN has stated that even though millions of tonnes of e-waste are produced globally, only a small fraction of 17.4% is documented as formally collected and recycled. It has also highlighted how additional risk factors - such as hazardous substances found in some electronics ending up in landfills – are alarming and action should be taken.

Building on the existing Ecodesign Directive 2009/125/EC, the ESPR is a framework with the aim to improve the circularity and the practices that contribute to sustainability in order to make “sustainable products the new norm in the EU, by making them last longer, use energy and resources more efficiently, easier to repair and recycle, contain fewer substances of concern and include more recycled content.” The regulation will look at categories of physical products in a wide range of industries, from textiles, furniture, to plastics, batteries and electronics and ICT. The regulation will apply to any products sold on the EU market, even if they were not manufactured there.

By mandating the implementation of DPPs via the ESPR, the EU hopes to encourage manufacturers and producers to adopt more sustainable practices and inspire circular thinking past the point of manufacture. Furthermore, consumers will benefit from having access to more product information that supports them in making choices that contribute to the circular economy.

The power of DPPs to minimise e-waste

In essence, DPPs act as a digital twin of a physical product, securely recording data throughout the course of a product’s lifecycle. By using a device, such as a smartphone, end-users can scan a QR code or a barcode on a product, and gain access to the DPP which houses information about the product’s manufacturing process, warranty information, the journey to the end-user, or even how to responsibly dispose of the product at EOL. It can include product provenance identification (product ID), the raw materials used in manufacturing (including the receipt history of these materials), and even the carbon footprint associated with the product, and repair history.

Given that electronic devices and equipment often consist of various materials - some of which can be hazardous (such as lead, mercury, or other substances) - if they are not disposed of responsibly it can pose a serious risk. Beyond enhancing transparency surrounding the sourcing and sustainability of materials, DPPs can also offer insights into the precise composition of a product and guidelines on its safe and responsible disposal or recycling. This represents a pioneering effort to push the responsible and effective management of products at EOL by enhancing education.

Initial plan of action for businesses

Whilst the details of the regulations are yet to be fully established and businesses face uncertainty, there is no doubt that compliance will be a complex process, so any organisation that this applies to should take steps now to prepare.

As a first step, businesses should select a DPP lead, or team, within the company who – in addition to leading the effort for implementation - will keep abreast of regulatory updates. This should involve gaining an understanding of the requirements currently outlined in key legislation such as the ESPR, and what will be decided at a later date. This should also involve bringing together the right internal stakeholders and external partners to assess the current set-up of the business and its supply chain to determine the best next steps. Every organisation is unique, and having a clear view of what compliance looks like for each business specifically is an important task to support the creation of a strategy.

Only after this process should a business begin to create a DPP strategy which outlines clear goals and actions based on the comprehensive research and preparation that has come before it.

At this stage, clear milestones and timelines can begin to take shape and be defined, and initial preparation steps such as the identification of data points can begin to happen. It is crucial however that these first steps are approached with care and trusted partners are identified sooner to set the course for successful implementation.

Looking forward to a sustainable future

The EU DPP mandate will be a challenging journey for all businesses due to its complexity.

However, the electronics industry has a chance to be at the forefront of the circular economy movement with timely implementation and diligence. DPPs are set to transform e-waste as we know it, and they will be mandated at every step between the production and disposal phases of electronics. In a time when sustainability, transparency, and traceability are already important priorities for many electronics producers, businesses also can capitalise on the opportunity to optimise spend and achieve their ESG goals by implementing comprehensive DPP solutions ahead of the mandate.

While the start of the preparation phase will prove to be rigorous, especially when getting up to speed with the intricacies of the regulation and mapping how it applies to the full scope of their operations, businesses who’ve started this process will have more time for careful consideration, and will of course reap the biggest rewards long-term.

Author details: Lars Rensing is CEO of Protokol