EU Adopts Right to Repair for Household Appliances

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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:

Is it?

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.

 

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15 comments

  1. marcel

    I would like to cite the RoHS directive from a years back. I was in a business (re)selling computers, and we got two price lists when that directive became law: one with RoHS-compliant devices (~10% more expensive) and one for the same devices, but not RoHS-compliant. So we would sell one list to our European customers, and the other list to everybody else.
    We’ve had that list for only ~18 months. The next price cycle had only one list, and everything was RoHS-compliant. It was just to expensive to maintain distinct product facilities.
    I think (and hope) this will go the same way.
    Identifying ‘professional repair services’ is fairly easy, as these have a VAT registration in their home country.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for this info. Although the EC’s action is far from perfect, it sets a floor for a right to repair for household appliances sold in the EU. Now if regulators – EU and otherwise- were to show some spine vis a vis Apple et al….

      Actually, I’m cautiously optimistic that the concept of a right to repair may be catching on. Fingers crossed.

      Reply
  2. Bill Smith

    Is there a size limit ($ in sales) for companies that have to comply? How will a small company come up with the money to build out a 10 year supply of parts?

    Reply
    1. hunkerdown

      This, and, how much of that spare assembly stock are we going to find scrapped ten years on, having brought benefit to nobody except a few contract manufacturers? It’s the means-tested, professionally-managed “guess the future” game that’s already hurt freelancers under the ACA.

      On the other hand, contract and short-run manufacturing has gotten so cheap and accessible that running off 100pcs every two years, or even 10pcs, might be a viable strategy for the small product designer.

      Reply
  3. John k

    Be simple to require that battery and memory is as easily replaceable in all hand held devices as a camera.
    Why not?
    I replaced my iPad bc battery wouldn’t last.

    Reply
  4. Tom67

    I used to have a side line business selling used Thinkpads. A friend with golden hands did the repairs and I the software and the spare parts. I have to say that at least until ten years ago Thinkpads were exemplary. You could find almost anything online and it wasn´t hard to exchange most parts. I am writing this on a ten year old x201 and I couldn´t ask for a better machine. It cost me about a 100€ three years ago and probably I will have it a few more years. Got a newer and bigger Thinkpad as a desktop replacement and screwed it apart out of pure curiosity. Turns out you need now a special – almost impossible to get screwdriver to – access certain parts. Alas tempi passati – but for anyone reading this without money: believe me any thinkpad at least until t420 will do almost any job except video editing a.s.o better and more reliably than any newer machine. Certain of it as I ´ve seen the innarts of lot´s of notebooks…

    Reply
  5. Dan

    Have repaired a heavily used 35 year old electric Whirlpool dryer three times now over the last ten years. 3 service calls, 3 different parts that cost ~$25 total, $400 in cash total, paid to the same repairman.

    Yes, could have bought a piece of crap replacement for about the same price, after the first repair, but would have ended up with modern plastic, computer screen, piece of crap that wouldn’t last five years.

    Would rather give the cash to an independent repairman, who lives down the street and continue using the energy invested in the manufacture of the old unit. Only downside, the top is rusting where it’s scratched.
    High temperature car engine paint fixed that. The appliance has character and age lines where the paint has worn off the steel.

    Refrigerator stop working? Look on Craigslist for appliance repairs. Often a cheap five dollar electronic fuse or something similar. Usually a man can come to your house, diagnose the problem, has the common part in his car and fix your unit for less than a hundred bucks. Negotiate “fix it or no payment” ahead of time.
    You just saved a thousand bucks if it is a high end unit.
    As soon as you work with a dealer or company, you are setting yourself up for the extortion of “diagnosis” and payments that include their advertising, taxes etc.

    Never buy any appliance, or a used car, without checking Consumer Reports ratings, often free online from your public library.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for your comment. My mother still has – and uses – the washing machine I remember from my teenage years, when Carter was still president. It wasn’t new then, but still works perfectly fine. Can’t remember which brand.

      Reply
  6. Tyronius

    I’m currently writing this on a Samsung Note 4 smartphone, the last one they made with a user replaceable battery. I just put my third replacement battery in it last month- free, because the first time I bought the replacement battery, it came with a lifetime warranty. Huzzah, Batteries Plus!

    I’m a huge proponent of the right to repair because of environmental concerns and the fact that it tends to encourage better made products to begin with.

    Reply
  7. Hoppy

    What’s not to like?

    This topic is so complex and it is fraught with peril. Simplifying it with statements like “Buy less stuff. Repair things that break. Don’t throw items away. Reuse” could easily backfire and make necessary changes to address climate change impossible.

    Consumerism and over consumption is rampant, it needs to be dealt with, but I am not convinced the focus on right to repair for smartphones and major appliances is where it needs to be.

    The links reek of propaganda as the data clearly shows the major differences in impact, design, usage, and lifespan of these completely different product categories, yet the recommendations for all of them are the same. That’s silly.

    I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just say the solution to minimizing the climate impacts for each of the product categories is radically different.

    You want smartphones to last long enough to have a major impact then put lots more memory and processing power in them or quit developing new apps like Uber that allow people to get rid of their cars.

    You want washing machines to last long enough to have a major impact then figure out how to make sure they can be upgraded to run automatically at the optimal times for the renewables power grid or run with increasingly more efficiency the longer their lifespan.

    Pushback on designers and engineers to do better is always good. But I worry this focus on right to repair as a solution for everything is misguided and may end up hurting more than it helps.

    Based on the study data, Dan in the comment above is probably hurting us all by running that 35 year old dryer he keep repairing on the cheap. Or at a minimum it’s a good thing everyone doesn’t follow his lead.

    There are no easy answers here and we may someday soon wish that ICE automobiles weren’t so easy to repair.

    Reply
  8. David

    This debate is interesting for seeing just how far the word “repair” can have its meaning stretched, and in the process it reveals that most of the participants are taking about different things.
    This is not a human rights issue, and using the word “right” simply confuses things and obscures the real issue. The essential question is the “ability” to have something repaired when it goes wrong. This always used to be the case, in the UK anyway, and I think largely still is, for such things as the compressors of fridge-freezers. Anything that makes it easier to repair major appliances which are intended to have a life of many years can only be good, and should be welcomed.
    Somehow, though, this point has become hopelessly confused with the quite different one of pressure from hobbyists and technology geeks to return to the days of home-made and self-modifiable electronics. Originally this was radios and hifi, later, of course, computers. In the 80s and 90s, it was pretty much the only way you could maintain and even improve your computer. But since those days, the tendency (originated by Apple, but not confined to them) has been to turn computers and other electronics into consumer devices, where, in Jobs’s words, “the computer disappears”, and the user simply focuses on the task. Such devices should therefore be made to consumer standards and last a very long time, without the need for repair. (My personal oldest piece of electronics, I see on checking, is a 2007 iPod Touch that still works perfectly). Needless to say, this is and always has been anathema to the techies and geeks who dominate the technical media, and form the hardcore of the “right to repair” lobby as applied to consumer electronics. They are essentially nostalgic for the days when you could tinker with computers and exchange excited technical recipes on bulletin boards. (Incidentally, neither replacing batteries or upgrading memory comes into any reasonable definition of “repair.”. Those are quite different issues.)
    Of course things go wrong, and, as far as I know, there are no electronics manufactures who forbid anyone to repair their products. You’re normally well-advised to get somebody qualified to do this, but I don’t think there’s any jurisdiction where you are forbidden to do it yourself if you want to take the risk. Rather, tech sites are really suggesting that manufactures should redesign their products so that hobbyists can get into them and do their repairs, with the provisions of course that if they b****r things up, they can still take the device back to the shop and have it repaired free. It’s the last hurrah, in some ways, of the techno-anarchist-libertarian mindset of Silicon Valley’s early days.
    Obsolescence is yet another different subject. I’d be surprised if there are actually any phone manufacturers who expect people to change their phones every two years for example (though high-end brands retain their value, so there are strong second and third hand markets). But like all consumer companies, mobile phone manufacturers bring out new models every year. If Apple, for example, didn’t do that, then of course the same sites that accuse it of promoting obsolescence would be accusing it of having no new ideas. This is typical of industries where technology advances quickly, and manufactures get together a series of improvements as new models from time to time. In early the 90s, Japanese manufacturers brought out new hifi systems every three months on average, although most people obviously waited years to replace their own systems. Likewise, automobile manufacturers bring out new models every year with no expectation that people will change their cars that frequently. There is a problem of obsolescence, but it’s essentially with low-end Android rubbish from China which lasts only a year or two before falling apart.
    So yes, interesting area, but lots of questions that are not the same.

    Reply
    1. hunkerdown

      with the provisions of course that if they b****r things up, they can still take the device back to the shop and have it repaired free

      Show me one right-to-repair advocate who proposes and defends a legal obligation on the part of the manufacturer to remedy damage caused by unauthorized repair. I suspect you’re just repeating the industry line and got nothin’.

      Reply
      1. David

        The kind of people who write these articles generally have enough technical capability to to the job correctly. My concern is that they encourage those who don’t. And I’m quite sure, given human stupidity and the sheer number of people involved, that this is precisely what will happen. Ask anyone in your family or among your friends who’s ever done tech support.

        Reply

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