New life for old goods – the eu’s battle with our IRREPARABLE electronics
By George Bandy
How long should we expect our electronics to last? And what can we do when they break? These are not only questions for ensuring happy customers but are also an essential part of tackling overconsumption and excessive waste. Unfortunately, two things with which Europe is very familiar.
To express the situation in numbers, Europe ranked first worldwide in the 2019 UN e-waste monitor in terms of e-waste generation, with 16.2 kg per capita per annum. (E-waste meaning any products with a battery, circuity, electrical components or a plug, which have been discarded without the intent to reuse.) More than half of this was large household appliances like cooking stoves and washing machines, with the rest being made up of things like kettles, smartphones, bedside lamps, and all the other small gadgets we have around. This means over the average lifetime, a European can be expected to throw out almost a ton of electronic goods; the majority of which are destined for landfill.
Needless to say, this is not a position to be proud of. The allure of new, cheap, and convenient, has evidently taken a toll on our demand for long-living, repairable products. Fixing our broken electronic goods appears to have become too burdensome. Is it only cost though that’s standing in the way?
The odds have become increasingly against repair. For one, technology has become increasingly complex. The idea of opening up your device (if you even can), and having a look to see what is wrong, can be quite daunting; there is the looming risk of making things worse, or not being able to stick it back together again. That leaves users with the option of sending units back to manufacturers to be repaired in-house, or, if they are fortunate to know one, stop by their local (“certified”) repair store. With pricier items such as laptops or refrigerators, and when within the warranty, it is likely that consumers will do just so, as it makes sense cost-wise. (Note, warranties on average last one to two years – after that, you can often find the price of repair heading closer to the region of buying a whole new item.) “Cheaper” purchases like string lights or a toastie maker from Amazon are less likely to be sent back if, or when, they stop working, even when there might be the possibility to do so – unfortunately it often may seem more hassle than it is worth.
Two, companies are not necessarily making it easy for consumers to repair their own goods; in fact, many seem to be doing the opposite. We find ourselves with items that are glued, bolted, welded, spliced and fused in a plethora of inventive ways that – whilst possibly cutting some costs of production – result in products that, by design, refuse to be repaired. On the occasion we do get a glimpse inside, we can be stunted by non-standard batteries or custom gear, for which the manufacture has no plans of selling replacement – not to consumers nor repair shops. It is also uncommon to find information from the company itself on how to go about repairing their products. Much of this is left to handy YouTubers or blogging hobbyists.
What may sound the most vexing when trying to work out how to fix your stuff, is instances of planned obsolescence, whereby the manufacture intentionally limits the life span of its products. Last year’s lawsuit against Apple highlighted this phenomenon; they stood accused of secretly slowing down older iPhones as they launched new models, to induce owners to buy replacements.
We then face a dilemma when staring at our broken tech. Whilst appreciating that it may just be a faulty battery or loose connection, the costs and time needed to get something repaired may just seem too much. Long return times, pricey parts, or the glamour of a new version already being available, can often be enough to push our purchases into early retirement. Whether it’s down to time or price, something is needed to turn the tides and make repair attractive once again – not least to avoid being buried under our own kitchen appliances.
This problem has not gone unnoticed. As part of its Circular Economy Strategy, the European Union is looking to push back against the current state of irreparability amongst our electronic goods. New ecodesign regulations have recently come into force. Since 2009, the ecodesign framework constructed by the EU has looked to tackle energy labelling, recyclability, materials usage, and now, with the latest wave updates – repairability. Since the 1st of March, companies that sell consumer electronics such as refrigerators, washing machines, lights, or TVs in the EU will need to ensure those goods can be repaired for up to 10 years after the company has discontinued the model. This means making spare parts and repair manuals available, making sure that the products can be disassembled with common tools, and pushes manufacturers to integrate repairability into product design.
It is a much-needed strike against the current waste-based economy. With spare parts and guidance easier to acquire, it hopes to rebalance the scales against encroaching producers and make repair once again not only possible but convenient and cost-effective for consumers.
There are some catches in the regulation, which show that these are only the first steps to an actual “right to repair”. The requirements will only apply to certain, most often, large household products like washing machines and dishwashers. Notable exceptions are laptops and smartphones, which make up a considerable amount of current e-waste. The requirements will also not be retroactive, meaning they will only apply to brand-new products. The need to supply spare parts and repair manuals only applies to professional repair shops, meaning the consumer, or voluntary projects like repairs cafés, will not be entitled access. The regulation does not cover software issues, so “outdated” machines are not guaranteed the necessary updates. Finally, the issue of bundling was not included, so manufacturers could still refuse to sell individual parts and rather only issue spares as part of a “bundle” pack, meaning you would need to buy extra things you do not need to get the part you do.
So, small steps, but they are in the right direction. Acting alone, certain European countries are already pushing past EU requirements and demanding more from companies. France, for instance, introduced in January a repair index for consumer electronics. Currently, it is only applicable for laptops, lawnmowers, smartphones, washing machines and televisions, but there is a plan for quick expansion. The score is calculated based on criteria such as ease of disassembly, price and availability of spare parts, and access to repair information. New buyers can then see at purchase how easy the item will be to fix in case things break, which will hopefully play a role in deciding what to buy. Sweden has also taken steps by introducing tax breaks on repairs for household appliances carried out by technicians. Whilst in Germany, the environment minister, Svenja Schulze, has said that as the next step, ‘manufacturers should have to state how long a product is expected to work for and repair it if it breaks down earlier. This would encourage companies to build more durable products.’ These examples demonstrate the opportunities available to legislators to make repair easier and more attractive.
Our relationship with repair may have waned over the years, though nothing that cannot be rekindled. As companies are pushed further towards eco-design, obligated into extended support, and required to relinquish control over spare parts and repair manuals, we can hope that the products we bring home today will still be going strong in many years to come.
George is graduate of the LL.M European and International Law at the University of Amsterdam and a European Studies alumnus. He has a keen interest in EU Policy and Regulation, particularly in Competition, Sustainability, Risk Regulation, and Foreign Affairs. As a frequent contributor to student publications, he’s written on a variety of both contemporary and historical European topics such as big data and surveillance capitalism to Kosovo and the EU’s external action service.