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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The European Commission has approved limited right to repair regulations for some household appliances: dishwashers, lighting, refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, among others.
Beginning in April 2021, manufacturers will have to meet standards to make their products last longer, and to supply spare parts to professional repairers for ten years following a product’s purchase date. No special tools will be necessary to install the replacement parts, and it must also be possible to effect the repair without damaging the product.
The new regulations arise from the EU’s ecodesign directive, which sets mandatory ecological requirements for energy-using and energy-related products sold in EU Member States.
As dezeen reports in EU recognises “right to repair” in push to make appliances last longer:
According to EU estimates, the measures together with stricter energy labelling will amount to annual a reduction of more than 46 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
“Figures speak for themselves: these measures can save European households on average €150 per year and contribute to energy savings equal to annual energy consumption of Denmark by 2030,” said Jyrki Katainen, European Commission vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness.
The new regulations prompted the FT’s architecture and design critic, Edwin Heathcote, to tweet:
This is a big thing. https://t.co/Qo9JzJt3b6
— edwin heathcote (@edwinheathcote) October 1, 2019
Although significant, this is a limited win, restoring some agency to consumers to repair rather than replace their appliances.
The first problem with the proposal is that EU member states must now approve the regulations – and that approval may not prove to be forthcoming (see this discussion by the Open Repair Alliance, Towards The Right To Repair In Europe).
Consumer advocates say that the EU initiative does not go far enough, and should have required manufacturers to supply parts not only to professional repair services, but also to consumers who wish to undertake their own repairs. Manufacturers claim that liability concerns prevent them from making replacement parts widely available to any who want to purchase them. But restricting who can buy the parts potentially limits the development of wider, lower cost, independent repair services – particularly of the smaller, mom and pop variety. The definition of “professional repair “ has yet to be settled, and upon that definition much will turn as to how effective the regulations will be in promoting a robust, low-cost repair culture.
As the BBC reports in EU brings in ‘right to repair’ rules for appliances:
… Stephane Arditi of the European Environment Bureau said: “When repair activities stay in the hands of a few firms, we’re missing an opportunity to make it more affordable and readily available.
“Small independent repairers can make a great contribution to the economy and our society. We need to help them do their job.”
Notably, the EU has thus far punted on the issue of e-waste, allowing market leaders such as Apple to implement crapification policies that prevent repair of their products. Apple recently announced a new repair policy – but on closer look, there’s much less to it that meets the eye (see Apple Blinks on Right to Repair: Or Does It?, for further details). The Apple program only includes iPhones – and does not include iMacs or MacBooks, such as the creaky one I’m currently writing this post on and which is overdue for overhaul and repair.
Despite the EU moving first on a (limited) right to repair, a grassroots movement to promote an the idea is much more advanced in the United States. More than twenty states are currently considering right to repair, one that is generally more broadly defined than the EU regulations, to include farm equipment and consumer electronics. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have endorsed the concept, as has the New York Times editorial board (see Right to Repair Initiatives Gain Support in US).
Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair Campaign for U.S. PIRG, an advocacy organization, writes in a blog post, Why Europe’s New Efforts to Tackle Unfixable Gadgets Are So Important:
Most of the state legislation proposed on Right to Repair doesn’t require manufacturers to design their products any differently — which would be expensive. In other words, the bills don’t demand that the iPhone look or function any differently: State reforms would simply require manufacturers like Apple to make the repair tools, parts, and software already used by their own authorized shops available to the rest of us.
There was one state bill with a manufacturing requirement, in Washington. This bill, which passed in committee with a strong bipartisan vote in February, would ban the practice of gluing batteries into devices. This would have required Microsoft to redesign their Surface line of products, or be unable to sell them in their home state. State insiders said that Microsoft sent senior leadership to directly intervene and stop the bill, agreeing to support a tax increase in exchange for stopping Right to Repair and another bill they opposed.
But while this kind of legislation hasn’t gained traction in the United States, things may be different abroad. The policy vehicle in Europe to go after issues of repairability is through the “EcoDesign Directive,” a standard across the EU that deals with the environmental impacts of various products. Repair advocates have expanded this directive to include durability and repair.
For example, new rules for heating and cooling systems (such as refrigerators) came out late last year, with requirements concerning the ease of disassembly. Some existing machines might need to be designed differently to meet the standard and be sold in the EU. The directive requires that certain components can be easily removed with commonly available tools, and without damaging the product.
Rules that push manufacturers to make it easier to take apart and service equipment are important. Increasingly, the difficulty and cost of disassembly makes repair impractical, and therefore increases the rate of replacement. For example, when companies introduce new screw designs, such as when Apple started using new Pentalobe screws in computers in 2009 and phones in 2011, it prevents people from opening devices until they buy new screwdrivers — which Apple, as it happens, doesn’t sell. Other devices are glued together in such a way that there is no way to open them up without damaging the product, such as the 2017 Microsoft Surface Pro, which iFixit dubbed a “glue-filled monstrosity.” Microsoft has shifted its product design since then, and the new Surface Laptop 3 focuses on repairability.
Proctor notes the recent adoption of the new EU regulations, and emphasizes that the requirement to supply spare parts should make repair possible, however the EU decides to define a “professional repairer”.
Why This is So Important
Another point I want to bring up is the link between planned obsolescence and climate change. What that means: the importance of the right to repair extends far beyond mere waste disposal.
Here I’d like again to quote exclusively from Proctor’s analysis of a recent study on this link:
Most manufacturer’s environmental initiatives try to downplay the inconvenient fact that if we want to reduce emissions to a sustainable level, we need to make and buy less stuff. Manufacturers make money, after all, by selling us new stuff.
If you peruse the environmental self-promotion pages on, say, Samsung’s website, you see a lot of talk about using renewable energy at facilities, recyclable packaging, product recycling, and the efficiency of their products while in use.
But the vast majority of the climate impact from a smartphone is from the extraction of natural resources and the original manufacturing. The European Right to Repair coalition debuted a new report in September which makes this case quite powerfully. EEB issued a study that found 72% of the climate impact from a smartphone is from manufacturing and recycling.
Among some of the excellent points raised by this new research:
- Smartphones account for some 14 million metric tons of carbon emissions for Europe, or roughly the annual pollution of Latvia.
- Extending the lifespan of European cell phones by one year would be like taking one million cars off the road.
- If you count the emissions from manufacturing as part of Europe’s carbon footprint, the EU would not have achieved any reduction in emissions since 1990.
Manufacturers would likely prefer that people praise their effective recycling programs while ignoring the biggest problems of their products: their incredibly short lifespans. After all, even the best recycling programs only recover a relatively small portion of the raw materials in a product, and are vastly less efficient than repair and reuse.
The truth is, manufacturers somehow convincing the public to accept the idea that we should buy a new smartphone every couple of years is absurd; absurd for consumers and dangerous for the planet. And the focus on that reality increases the pressure on manufacturers to deal with the most unsustainable parts of their model [emphasis in original.]
There Is an Alternative
Buy less stuff. Repair things that break. Don’t throw items away. Reuse.
Sound public policy in support of these objectives would mitigate the climate impact of many industries, reduce the amount of waste that gets dumped into landfills, and save consumers money.
What’s not to like?
The European Commission’s household appliances action is a limited first step. But there’s considerable scope for extending a right to repair, to include a broader range of products, within the EU, as well as to embrace the concept either within key US states, or at the national level.