our 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.
“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.”
A PEOPLE-POWERED MOVEMENT
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, 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.