Under new EU legislation, manufacturers of certain products will be required to make them easier to repair – progress for consumers and the environment
Your gran was right: they don’t make them like they used to. Take the humble washing machine. In the 1980s, these once-dependable white goods would typically clean your clothes for a decade, before giving up the ghost. They now need to be replaced every seven years, on average, according to research by Green Alliance, a UK-based charity.
This is a raw deal for consumers and the planet alike. The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership says consumers worldwide threw out 44.7m tonnes of electronic products in 2016, just 20 per cent of which was recycled.
One of the reasons why some items fail to go the distance is because they have become too difficult – and therefore too expensive – to repair. Many manufacturers, intentionally or otherwise, build products in a way that does not allow for disassembly, making it impossible to replace defective components when they break. Consumers, therefore, are often forced to scrap the entire item, when there is actually very little wrong with it.
But all that could be about to change thanks to new EU legislation, which will require manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, lights and fridges to make their products easier to repair.
From 2021, appliances of these types that are sold in Europe must be designed so that key components can be replaced with commonly available tools. Spare parts will also have to be made available to professional repairers for at least seven years after the last unit is sold.
Supporters of the legislation claim it will prolong the lives of popular household items and dampen demand for new ones, thereby reducing carbon emissions, cutting waste and saving consumers money. It awaits formal EU acceptance.
New EU legislation will prolong the lives of popular household items and dampen demand for new ones
“This is a historic moment,” says Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project, a UK social enterprise that teaches people how to repair broken electronics. “Not only does this provide a precedent for additional product categories to be included in future, but it’s likely other regions will now be inspired to enact similar legislation.”
The Restart Project team says the legislation will give professional repairers “game-changing” access to replacement circuit boards for fridges, dishwashers and washing machines, which will make many more repairs viable. Such access will not, however, be granted to consumers, as they had hoped.
“Manufacturers won important concessions restricting the rights of consumers to repair products themselves,” says Libby Peake, a senior policy advisor at Green Alliance. “The legislation isn’t as robust as we had hoped for. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
To understand how keeping products for longer can benefit the environment, consider this: according to Apple, the average iPhone XS produces 70kg of CO2 in its lifetime. Of that, 81 per cent occurs during the manufacturing process, with consumer use accounting for just 15 per cent. (Transport and recycling make up the rest.)
“If you extend the lifetime of a product you hold off that production process, a process which is incredibly energy intensive,” explains Peake.
The new legislation is an extension of the Ecodesign Directive, which forced manufacturers to improve the energy efficiency of products such as boilers, lights and televisions. The UK government supported the directive and has claimed it will adopt “similar measures” post-Brexit.
The EU’s decision to broaden the directive’s remit was seen as a major victory for the ‘right to repair’ movement. The burgeoning consumer rights campaign is thought to have started in 2012 in the US state of Massachusetts. Frustrated with how difficult it had become to repair modern vehicles, voters there approved legislation that required car manufacturers to give consumers access to manuals and parts.
Although the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act was not passed at federal level, automotive industry representatives signed a memorandum agreeing to abide by the Massachusetts law in all 50 US states.
The right to repair movement subsequently spread across the US, where 18 states have proposed similar legislation for other products. California is the latest to introduce such a bill, which, if passed (and that’s a big if), would oblige electronics manufacturers to give ordinary people access to spare parts and repair manuals.
What level of public support is there for such legislation? It appears to be overwhelming. In Massachusetts, 86 per cent of the electorate voted for the bill, while in the UK, according to research by the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products, 81 per cent of people think businesses should provide more help with repair, maintenance, and in disposing of items too.
Aside from the environmental damage, premature obsolescence is incredibly frustrating – and expensive. We’ve all encountered products that are glued together to prevent access, had laptops that don’t last or washing machines that stop spinning just a few years in.
As Peake points out, if governments raised standards across the board, requiring components to last at least 10 years, for example, and common failure points – like bearings, paddles and doors – designed to be replaceable, it would “consign shoddy appliances to the dustbin of history, be hugely popular and offer considerable environmental benefits.
“Our economy has developed into a linear economy, where we take materials out of the ground, make something from them and use them for a short time, before disposing of them. I think people are increasingly realising that Earth can’t sustain that.”
Despite public support, right to repair legislation is often opposed by manufacturers, who stand to lose out from selling fewer products.
In California, for example, Silicon Valley companies objected to the bill on safety grounds, claiming amateur repairs to phones and other electronic devices could prove dangerous.
We take materials out of the ground, make something from them and use them for a short time, before disposing of them. I think people are increasingly realising that Earth can’t sustain that
Lobbyists fighting the EU legislation used similar tactics. Whether such objections stem from genuine concern for safety or fear about companies’ profit margins, nevertheless, they are not entirely unwarranted. The Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people in London, is thought to have started with a faulty fridge. While there is no suggestion the defective appliance had been subject to a DIY repair, the tragedy highlights the dangers posed by defective electrical goods, and raises legitimate questions about non-specialists repairing them.
“We are not advocating that everyone repairs all of their own possessions all of the time,” says Vallauri. He encourages people to seek assistance if they are not confident repairing faulty appliances.
While some manufacturers oppose right to repair legislation, others are way ahead of it. The Dutch company Fairphone, for example, has designed a pioneering range of modular smartphones, which can be easily repaired by users. Replacing the screen on its Fairphone 2, for instance, takes around a minute, compared to an hour for most smartphones.
Don’t make them like they used to? Soon, perhaps, that will be something to celebrate.