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New European Union legislation could bring back replaceable batteries in all smartphones

A few years ago when life was simpler and we could quickly reboot phones stuck in a boot loop or run into battery issues by simply pulling the battery out and putting it back in. Over time, smartphones have been packaged by themselves for the purposes of waterproof claims, which means the phones are sealed from the factory. Following the successful passage of laws mandating USB-C for smartphone charging, lawmakers in the European Union now want smartphone batteries to be removable and replaceable in the interest of sustainability and maintainability.

The EU is on the rise – first it will force smartphone makers to open up their devices to third-party app stores from January 2024, then it will make USB-C mandatory for portable electronics starting in late 2024, now it has reached a tentative agreement that will require portable devices have user-replaceable batteries. The Authority has given companies 3.5 years to redesign battery production and supply. On Friday, the European Parliament and the Council reached an agreement with the EU on new rules, so it’s already in motion.

The European Union agreement covers batteries of almost all sizes – from portable batteries, batteries for starting, lighting and ignition for vehicles (SLI batteries), batteries for light vehicles, batteries for electric vehicles (EV) and even industrial batteries.

User-replaceable batteries used to be the norm for smartphones, but they are vanishingly rare these days. For a standard stick form factor, this should be a relatively easy adaptation – even dust and water resistance is possible, as evidenced by the recent Samsung Xcover phones and similar devices.

The push for user-replaceable or user-serviceable batteries may seem like a backward step, but it will lead to better maintainability of electronic gadgets, at least in the EU. The removable battery will also help users extend the life of their phones without resorting to costly battery repairs—most Li-Polymer and Li-Ion batteries are beyond repair at the service center level anyway.

To promote sustainable battery production in the coming years, the EU says that at least 16% cobalt, 85% lead, 6% lithium and 6% nickel content must come from recycled sources. Legislators have set goals for companies to collect used products to ensure they don’t run out of materials to recycle. Disposal and collection of products should not cost end users a dime, no matter how much waste they offer.

It is clear that such drastic changes cannot happen overnight, even in a high-tech space. However, the change may require companies to rethink battery sources, relationships with recyclers and long-term supply chain strategies to avoid impacting consumers.

Today, smartphone batteries are maintenance-free and cannot be replaced, at least not by the user. If your battery is starting to show signs of aging (fast draining, slow charging, bloating) or is simply dead, your only option is to take your entire smartphone to the nearest service center and send the device in for repair.

All this is too much for many consumers who simply decide to buy a new smartphone. This is especially true for entry-level smartphones, where the cost of repairs when the phone is no longer under warranty is often high enough to discourage customers from fixing the phone.

Even as phone brands have begun swapping sealed batteries for replaceable ones, it remains unclear whether the change will affect India. Unlike the decision to migrate USB Type-C ports to the iPhone, the battery issue may not affect many Android-side smartphones that have a common manufacturing process for Europe and other regions. For example, brands such as Xiaomi are known to produce separate phone models for different regions, and this change may not affect product lines in the Asian market.

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