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New EU directive pushes toward replaceable iPhone batteries

The European Union is preparing new directives that could have an impact on Apple's future products, including "the New Batteries Directive," which proposes to mandate that batteries in electronic appliances be "readily removed" for replacement or disposal.

The EU has taken the lead in pushing for industry regulations that impact all companies that sell their products in Europe. For example, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, known as RoHS, demanded tough new limits to the use of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants known as PBB and PBDE.

Every RoHS has its thorn

RoHS, which took effect in July 2006, spelled the end of Apple's standalone iSight camera, which would have required a redesign to sell in Europe. California also passed laws that made many products banned by RoHS in Europe illegal to sell in California after January 2007 as well. By 2006, Apple had integrated compliant iSight cameras into its laptops and the iMac, leaving little need for a redesigned standalone iSight camera and resulting in the cancelation of the existing product. "As a result of our precautionary approach to substances," the company reported, "Apple was able to meet many of the RoHS restrictions long before the July 2006 deadline."

Alongside RoHS, other regulations related to handling eWaste, power efficiency, and the use of chemicals have gone into effect, some of which have the force of law while others are only guidelines that EU member nations exercise some flexibility in enforcing. Early on, some manufacturers complained that tough new regulations could cause problems that outweighed the social and environmental benefits they are intended to deliver.

In particular, the industry warned that without using lead, soldered connections would be weaker and products would fail faster. At the same time, the automotive industry has discovered that RoHS' mandated lead-free solder has a high temperature resistance that actually makes it better suited to the harsh conditions of temperature, shock, and vibration in the engine bay of cars. IBM discovered new lead-free technologies that resulted in "solder waste reduction, use of bulk alloys, quicker time-to-market for products and a much lower chemical usage rate."

Assault on batteries

Introduced with RoHS, the EU's 2006 Battery Directive updated existing regulation from 1991. It primarily sought to prevent the unnecessary use of toxic metals in batteries and attempts to make it easier to properly dispose of and recycle old batteries. The directive required EU member states to implement national laws and rules on batteries by September 2008.

While the Battery Directive now in force states that it must be easy for consumers to remove batteries from electronic products, the "New Batteries Directive" now being drafted over the next year goes even further to state that electrical equipment must be designed to allow that batteries be 'readily removed' for replacement or removal at the end of product's life.

Gary Nevison, writing for New Electronics, said [PDF] "the requirement is clearly intended to ensure that users can remove batteries by opening a cover by hand or after removal of one or two screws. The producer will also have to provide the user with details on how to remove the battery safely."

The EU and Apple

Such a regulation would seem to impact Apple's integrated battery design of its iPods and the iPhone, which are somewhat unique in that their batteries are not designed to be user replaceable and typically require special tools or professional assistance to remove them. At the same time however, the directives are not yet completed or ratified, and subject to both modification and exception.

The EU's Battery Directives are designed primarily to prevent toxic batteries from ending up in landfills, not to force manufacturers to develop products with specific features. Apple already offers free recycling for iPods and iPhones. Third party vendors also offer money for dead or broken iPods, further negating much of the concern that users would throw away their iPod with the battery still inside it. The real concern involves appliances with integrated batteries that have little value at the end of their life, few recycling options, and would likely be discarded with the battery intact.

Still, just as RoHS impacted the iSight as an international product, Apple may find it easier to modify how it packages its iPod and iPhone products than to attempt to work around or gain exceptions to the New Batteries Directive now being drafted. That may result in making modular, replaceable batteries a new feature, or at least further a continuation in the efforts Apple has already made recently to deliver iPods with batteries that are not glued in and therefore easier to replace or remove during recycling.

Apple's global product line makes it extremely unlikely that the company would develop different versions of its products for European markets in order to meet the EU directives. Instead, as with the iSight, Apple is likely to make international adjustments that meet the stringent requirements of regulations like RoHS and the New Batteries Directive and therefore provide the benefits to users everywhere it sells its products.