“The time has come to use the Green Deal objectives as the foundation of a single market that promotes durable products and services by design”

Fixing our disposable society

The EU begins tackling e-waste with the right to repair


December 2020 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair

On 25 November, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution giving consumers the right to repair electronic devices, as well as other measures designed to increase the lifespan and recyclability of products. The decision follows a European Commission vote in October 2019 to adopt ecodesign regulations on energy efficiency and labelling for a range of household appliances and electronics, which is due to come into effect 1 March 2021.

The resolution is not legally binding, but represents the opinion of the parliament. The European Commission must now take this into account when drafting legislation.

“The time has come to use the Green Deal objectives as the foundation of a single market that promotes durable products and services by design. To achieve this, we need a comprehensive set of rules that facilitates clear and simple decisions in place of technical amendments that lack political courage and which confuse both consumers and businesses,” said David Cormand, a Green MEP from France, and one of the politicians who proposed the measures.

Cormand also noted that the adoption of the resolution “sent a clear message: harmonised mandatory labelling indicating durability and tackling premature obsolescence at [the] EU level are the way forward.”

The measures are part of the EU’s push for a circular economy and are aimed at reducing the colossal quantities of electronic waste generated every year. Much of this e-waste is driven by devices such as smartphones and tablets, which are difficult to repair and are often quickly discarded when new models hit the market.

There were 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste produced around the world in 2019, equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships. Asia accounts for almost half of that and the official collection and recycling rate for the continent is just 11.7%. Japan produces 20.4kg of e-waste per person annually, while the average for EU citizens is 16.2kg. None of these figures take into account the waste created by the mining and processing of materials used in electrical devices, nor during their manufacture. Given the current trend, global e-waste is forecast to reach 74.7 million tonnes annually by 2030.

Apple’s iPhone has become a symbol of many of the problems with today’s devices. It is notoriously costly to repair or even to replace its battery. Also, the US tech giant has been criticised for making the chargers of different models incompatible, and it has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages relating to its deliberate slowing down of older models through software updates. In the US, the company has lobbied against right to repair rules being introduced in a number of states.

In Europe, some manufacturers have also opposed elements of the new proposals, according to Chloé Mikolajczak, EU campaigner for the Right to Repair Europe NPO.

While the resolution was being discussed, there was lobbying to water down a number of the measures, including those on planned obsolescence and mandatory labelling of products to provide consumers with easy-to-understand information on the estimated lifetime and reparability of a product, says Mikolajczak.

“The manufacturers are worried that they will have to give access to spare parts and manuals to everyone, that people will be empowered to repair their own stuff and do it more, and at the end of the day, that they’ll sell less,” she suggests.

However, not all manufacturers are against the shift. Stockholm-headquartered Electrolux, a leading global appliance maker, says it welcomes the new rules.

“Electrolux is fully committed to the energy efficiency and circularity goals of the European Union that also address the repair of products,” says Viktor Sundberg, the firm’s vice president for European and environmental affairs. “We therefore consider the EU’s new ecodesign legislation to be very important and we are implementing the necessary new actions, effective from 1 March 2021.”

The company aims to have parts available for major household appliances for up to 10 years after a product is purchased, and it has made user manuals — which include instructions for simple parts replacement — freely accessible online. These are two stipulations of the new legislation.

“We will now ensure that the specific parts, according to the legislation, will be available directly to consumers … [and] make the repair information available to independent repairers for the categories requested,” says Sundberg. “That being said, we would like to emphasise that it is not recommended that consumers open and/or repair items inside their appliances themselves, to ensure future correct and safe operation of the appliance and to avoid any risk of personal injury.”

German high-end appliance maker Miele says it already exceeds some of the new requirements.

“We are the only manufacturer in our branch of industry to test products such as our washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers, and ovens for the equivalent of up to 20 years of use,” says a spokesperson for Miele Japan. “At Miele, we guarantee to keep spare parts for 15 years after the end of production.”

In terms of extending the new rules from household appliances to devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops — as the November resolution calls for — Right to Repair’s Mikolajczak doesn’t see that happening by March 2021, believing it will take longer before the details are hammered out and legislation is on the books. And she doesn’t think the EU’s rules go far enough, pointing to tax breaks and other measures being taken to promote repair in Austria, and a more ambitious repair index coming into effect in France next month.

“We’re not seeing that at the European level,” she adds.

Mikolajczak also notes that the cost of spare parts has not been addressed, meaning repairs may still not be economically viable for consumers.

“Another issue is software support — sometimes software support is withdrawn and consumers end up with a piece of hardware that works but can’t be used,” says Mikolajczak. “We’re still pushing for that.” •

“people will be empowered to repair their own stuff”