Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as writes occasional travel pieces for The National.

Motherboard reports that five states have resurrected legislation that would mandate a right to repair consumer electronics. These states are Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New York. The bills would require companies to make replacement parts available to independent repair shops, as well as make public diagnostic and servicing manuals, and are aimed to dismantle the exclusive aftermarket repair market that limits repairs to the original manufacturers.

Allowing such monopoly arrangements to continue unchallenged allows original manufacturers to dominate aftermarket repairs. And this status quo imposes more than mere economic costs on consumers. It also creates unnecessary electronics waste that burdens the environment: first in consuming more resources to produce unnecessary products, and in requiring disposal of devices that are at best imperfectly recycled and contain many hazardous materials. Manufacturer control over original spare parts forces independent repair shops either to scavenge broken devices for parts, or to turn to grey market sources of supply. As another Motherboard piece, How to Fix Everything, describes, the Department of Homeland Security and federal customs agents have conducted raids on such shops for using allegedly “counterfeit” parts in their repairs.

This is not the first time that state legislatures have considered right to repair legislation.  In 2012, following a direct ballot initiative that saw 86% of those voting supporting the measure, Massachusetts passed the first automotive right to repair bill, and that eventually became the basis for a nationwide policy. Auto manufacturers themselves promoted a federal policy out of concern that otherwise they might have to deal with 50 competing state statutory variants on the same theme.

Tech Companies Oppose Right to Repair

So far, tech companies have successfully quashed previous right to repair measures in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, and most recently, in New York, when a measure was diverted and never brought to the floor of the New York State Senate for a vote. As reported in The Huffington Post, in a piece headlined Big Tech Squashes New York’s ‘Right To Repair’ Bill:

“We were disappointed that it wasn’t brought to the floor, but we were successful in bringing more attention to the issue,” New York state Sen. Phil Boyle (R), a sponsor of the bill, told The Huffington Post Friday.

Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a group of nonprofits and businesses that backed New York’s right to repair legislation, blamed the lack of a vote on lobbyists for major tech companies.

“They threw enough doubt into the minds of legislators that Fair Repair was not put out for a vote,” Gordon-Byrne told HuffPost in an email, referring to the legislation by its title, the “Fair Repair Act.” “Four companies against 19 million [New York] consumers.”

About a year ago, repairers created an advocacy group, The Repair Association, to seek federal and state law changes that will preserve and extend the right to repair items including cell phones,  computers, farm equipment, refrigerators, and watches, according to another Motherboard piece, A New Advocacy Group Is Lobbying for the Right to Repair Everything. The group claims that “Over three million Americans work hard every day to keep our cars, computers, appliances, and other critical infrastructure operating smoothly.” Just as importantly, these skilled jobs are distributed throughout the country, “Repair is the lifeblood of local economies. Our members make products last longer, save owners money, and create local jobs.”

At the the federal level, efforts focus on fixing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to enshrine a right to repair; at the state level, the group promotes state-specific changes.  This link provides a roster of The Repair Association, whose founder members include the Electronic Frontier FoundationiFixit, and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Rejecting the Throwaway Culture

Regular readers might recall that I spend much of my time outside the US.  When I occasionally return– most recently in September/October– I’m always struck by how wasteful so many basic American systems are. Some of these may be due to consumer choices, but as is clear from what I’ve written above, others are imposed on us. So, for example, standing in a Trader Joe’s on Long Island, I was overwhelmed by the amount of plastic swathing just about any possible purchase, most of which were packaged in increments that were far greater than my husband and I could reasonably consume. (Before I get shredded by the commentariat, I should mention that I prefer to buy food– fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, meat– at local farmers’ markets, in quantities that we can use.  But sometimes it’s just not possible to do that. Such markets are seasonal– when they exist at all– they’re often open at most a couple of days a week, and local growing seasons limit available food choices.)

So two points spring to mind. First, over the last decade, I’ve visited India many times.  There, the amount of waste is strikingly lower. It’s not difficult to understand why: India is a much poorer country than the US, and with a much lower per capita income, most Indians simply cannot afford to waste things. It’s a principle drummed into each and every Indian not to waste food.  And this is a principle I see people regularly follow, even those who don’t have to struggle to afford to pay for a simple meal.

The “waste not, want not” dictum carries over beyond what one eats.  India retains a healthy repair culture. Further, when one no longer has use for an item, Indians tend to pass things along to others to reuse them.  (Although the country lacks formal recycling programs, that doesn’t mean discarded objects are abandoned; wastepickers comb through refuse and although it’s easiest to focus on the abhorrent nature of this work, those that do it ensure that items with some economic value are either reused or recycled).

A couple of weeks after acquiring my first basic $30 dumbphone sometime in 2010, iirc– I’m by no stretch of the imagination an early adopter– I stumbled during a moment of Kolkata “load shedding”– aka, a power cut– and dropkicked my new ‘phone down a spiral staircase. Fortunately, since it was a dumbphone, rather than the latest i-model, it survived its journey more or less intact, save for a badly cracked screen. In the US, I would probably just have bought a new ‘phone. But since I was in India, I was able to take the ‘phone to a nearby repair shop and get it fixed for $10.  Now I understand there’s a difference between a smartphone and a dumbphone (or so I’m told) and further, as I’ve written above, consumers themselves aren’t opting to use Apple or original manufacturer repair services exclusively; the companies themselves have stymied alternatives.

But I’m also old enough to remember when even many American small towns had thriving repair shops. At that time, toasters and tube tvs were the items being repaired. Why then, today, should we be forced to return electronics to their original manufacturer or an authorised outlet for repair, forced to pay out whatever that company wants to charge, rather than allowing a competitive, local service to develop, with access to necessary parts, and appropriate documentation necessary to provide proper service?

The EU’s Circular Economy Initiative 

My second point relates to the EU’s circular economy initiative. A couple of years ago I wrote an article about this topic and as I was writing today’s post, I decided to look at what had happened in the interim. In contrast to the US, the problems of waste management are largely left to cities, municipalities, and states to resolve, the EU is (at least in theory) moving forward with a comprehensive waste management program.

One element of this is an ambitious ‘circular economy’ package. Proposed in 2014, The European Commission in May 2015 launched a public consultation on this initiative for increasing resource efficiency, and adopted the package in December of the same year. This policy was motivated by a conscious decision to replace the ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ model of how resources are used and consumed (with some minor tweaks to promote for end-of-life-cycle recycling for some inputs).  EU policymakers appreciate that as the world’s population approaches 9 billion people, the prevailing wasteful linear model of resource consumption results is no longer sustainable. The circular economy alternative instead considers the entire life cycle of a product, and seeks to reduce waste by various means, including reducing materials used in products; promoting durability and thereby extending the useful life of a product; practicing ecodesign (and so facilitating easier maintenance, repair,  or remanufacturing); and promoting waste reduction by minimizing recycling costs and encouraging reuse.

Last week, the Commission released a report on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan: 

This package included legislative proposals on waste, with long- term targets to reduce landfilling and increase recycling and reuse. In order to close the loop of product lifecycles, it also included an Action Plan to support the the circular economy in each step of the value chain – from production to consumption, repair and manufacturing, waste management and secondary raw materials that are fed back into the economy. The Commission committed to undertake the detailed list of actions within its current mandate.

The transition towards a more circular economy brings great opportunities for Europe and its citizens. It is an important part of our efforts to modernise and transform the European economy, shifting it towards a more sustainable direction. There is a strong business case behind it which enables companies to make substantial economic gains and become more competitive. It delivers important energy savings and environmental benefits. It creates local jobs and opportunities for social integration. It is closely interlinked with key EU priorities on jobs and growth, investments, the social agenda and industrial innovation.