With calls for a green recovery from the pandemic growing, there are multiple angles to be considered. Striking a better balance between economic activity and carbon emissions, biodiversity, air quality and noise pollution have all been in the conversation about what the near future could look like. Another aspect that bears consideration is our relationship with materials.

This is nothing new following the ‘Blue Planet effect', but with the fully expected and appropriate safety and cross-contamination concerns, reports suggest that plastic waste has been on the upturn again, whether this is from discarded PPE or takeaway boxes. At the same time we have seen a change in the status quo for other materials – for example metals have seen demand drop, and a slow-down in production and supply.

The new EU Circular Economy Action Plan

All this comes on the heels of the adoption of the European Commission’s new Circular Economy Action plan, announced in March at the peak of the crisis in Europe. This legislation promotes another pro-environmental practice that could be a boon in these times – a greater focus on repair, and improving resource efficiency. This five-year strategy outlines actions to make a big change to how electronic goods are produced and consumed, and how long they should last for.

At this stage the plan is only a strategy and not yet backed up with concrete policy. But it is a sea-change for empowering consumers to be able to demand longer-lasting, less wasteful and more repairable smartphones, TVs, printers and laptops, coming after legislation on appliances, televisions and lighting brought in at the end of 2019.

As another building block of a green recovery, increased repair has the potential to not only help reduce the environmental cost of extraction, but alleviate global supply shortages, rejuvenate local business and extend the life and value of goods and the materials inside them.

The Circular Economy Action Plan lists the following points related to repair:

  • Sustainable product policy legislative initiative – aiming to improve the sustainability of all products on the European market, and address premature obsolescence
  • Revision of EU consumer law to establish a consumer right to repair, and provide point of sale information on product lifespans
  • Circular Electronics Initiative – aiming to change the take-make-dispose ethos for many electronics, as well as the introduction of a common charger
  • Revision of economic instruments – for example this could promote more repair by altering VAT rates.

The UK may have left the EU but is still likely to benefit from this initiative – manufacturers are unlikely to produce different versions of products for the UK than the EU market.

What difference does all this make?

E-waste is the fastest-growing part of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. A recent count tallied this at 48.5 million tonnes in 2018. This is problematic on more than one level. When electronics end up in landfill, there is an environmental cost from toxins such as mercury and lead, often borne outside the places they were bought and used in. And this is not to mention the environmental and human rights impacts from increased mining - such as those seen with cobalt coming from DRC.

In addition, very valuable materials that could be re-used are often wasted. Indium in touch screens, tantalum in capacitors, or rare earth elements, such as neodymium in computer hard drives, are essential to our electronic devices. But without a driver to ensure end-of-life recovery, these vital but difficult to extract and sometimes scarce materials regularly end up in landfill. Then, there’s the carbon cost – analysis from Coolproducts found that extending the life of all smartphones in the EU by just 1 year would save 2.1 Mt CO2 per year. That's equivalent to taking over a million cars off the road.

One more metric to throw into the mix here: repair creates jobs. According to a study from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity on dealing with electronic waste, every 1,000 tonnes of electronic products made could also create 200 repair jobs. Recycling the same amount of products would create 15 jobs, and landfilling less than one job.

What’s the current situation? What is the ‘right to repair?’ And what is being done?

Until recently, there have been virtually no responsibilities imposed on manufacturers to make products longer lasting or repairable, outside the warranties they choose to provide themselves. In many cases it’s harder to get an appliance repaired than it is to buy a new one. The reason may only be the failure of one component, but product design in some cases may seal away these key components, or use proprietary parts that can’t be easily accessed.

And it’s not just the hardware rules that have been weighted in the favour of manufacturers – software updates can often leave consumers unable to continue to use their devices. This caused controversy in the last couple of years when some big brand smartphones appeared to slow down, or undergo significant battery performance drops. The business model of trying to push consumers into buying a new device before their existing one should be ready to give up the ghost may improve companies’ bottom lines, but is not what people want, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey. Some 8 in 10 Europeans agree that it should be mandatory for manufacturers to make it easier to repair digital devices, and 77% of EU citizens would rather repair their goods than have to buy new ones.

What is the ‘right to repair’? Well, consumers currently have very little power to shape the model by which we buy and use our electronics – currently manufacturers have most of the control over whether a product can be repaired or not, with information generally not available to independent repairers, or people who might be able to fix their devices themselves.

What could be done if products took a more open-source approach? A great example of this is iFixit, a global repair community crowdsourcing information which has just released a freely available medical repair database to help with the growing demand for the repair of critical hospital equipment.

There are more positive signs too. Recent updates were made to EU Ecodesign legislation for white goods, televisions, and lighting at the end of 2019. Ecodesign has been one of the big success stories of energy-saving EU policy, setting minimum limits on how much energy your fridge can use, or your TV can consume in standby mode, and phasing out inefficient technologies like incandescent lightbulbs.

This was taken further in 2019, with legislation passed in the Ecodesign Regulations for refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, televisions and lightbulbs to include repairability aspects. Manufacturers will now be required to make spare parts available for 10 years for washing machines and dishwashers, and provide these within 15 working days, as well as firmware updates for eight years after manufacture.

Other interesting developments in this area are new standards being written to assess how repairable a product is. The draft standard prEN 45554 might not sound catchy, but could become a ground-breaking piece of legislation. Perhaps an electronic device you own has stopped working – often this is something small – maybe a single capacitor has failed. Does the device have parts glued together that stop a technician from prising the back off? What about screws that can’t be removed without a standard screwdriver? Under the proposed standard, a user would be provided with a scoring index showing how repairable a device is. In France, a similar initiative will be in place in 2021 to give products a repairability score visible to consumers.

More repair sounds like a good call. How do I find out more or get involved?

Learn more about how we help companies transition to a circular economy

Photo: Tirza Van Dijk, Unsplash

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Stewart Muir
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