In France, new legislation can help to reduce electronic waste and its consequent environmental impact.
“Hmm,” murmurs Bruno Mottis, while squinting behind his glasses. “Did you spill water on it? Or put more than a kilo of weight on top? The internal wiring seems to have fried or disconnected in some way,” he explains.
Mottis, a volunteer technician, turns the red kitchen scale upside down (decorated with the phrase “keep calm and make jam”, or “stay calm and make jam”) and inspect your circuit board with a portable voltage detector.
“It may have gotten wet when I was cleaning it,” replies Imene, a Parisian who participates in a repair workshop in a public building in the ninth arrondissement of the French capital.
“I hope you can fix it, so you don’t have to buy another one. If I have to buy it, there will eventually be another problem and I will have to buy another one. It’s a vicious cycle,” she complains.
Paris is home to a dozen of these workshops or “repair cafes”, free monthly initiatives that allow local residents to repair household items and electronics with the help and advice of enthusiastic volunteers.
Inspired by the initiative launched by journalist Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009, hundreds of similar workshops operate across Europe.
“We are a society of waste and excessive consumption,” explains Emmanuel Vallée, organizer of Repair Café Paris, which since its launch in May 2019, has attracted around 25 people per event, including some who participate online.
“We throw away things that we don’t necessarily need to throw,” he laments.
For Vallée and technicians like him, there is a lot of work to be done.
The world produced about 45 million tonnes of electronic waste in 2016, when consumers and businesses threw away smartphones, computers and home appliances valued at $ 62.5 billion.
And only 20% of all this equipment is properly recycled.
In Europe, where the problem is particularly serious, researchers estimate that only between 12% and 15% of cell phones are properly recycled, although about 90% of the population has one.
And the forecast is that e-waste, which is often sent illegally from the West to huge toxic landfills in countries like the Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria and China, is expected to reach more than 52 million tons by the end of 2021 – and to double volume by 2050, becoming the fastest growing type of household waste in the world.
The environmental impact ranges from giant carbon emissions to contamination of water sources and food supply chains.
But with repairs, a significant part of that waste could be avoided.
According to a study by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency, only 40% of electronic malfunctions are repaired in France.
Research, however, indicates that almost two-thirds of Europeans prefer to repair their products than to buy new ones.
That is why the French authorities believe that, like Imene’s kitchen scale, the current system does not work and needs to be repaired.
In an effort to reduce this huge amount of preventable waste, the French National Assembly voted last year to institute a “repairability” rating index for appliances such as washing machines, lawn mowers, televisions and smartphones.
In doing so, the French government hopes to increase the rate of repair of electronic devices by 60% in five years.
The rules went into effect in January and require manufacturers to place ratings on their products – something similar to the energy efficiency rating system that is already widely implemented.
They are calculated based on five criteria: ease of repair, price of spare parts, availability of spare parts, availability of documentation for repair and a final measure that varies depending on the type of device.
After the first year, a fine of up to 15,000 euros will be imposed on producers, distributors and sellers who do not comply with the measure.
The bill also provides for a “durability” index, starting in 2024, which will take into account new criteria such as product reliability and robustness.
“We want to limit the consumption of the world’s natural resources,” explains Véronique Riotton, a French MP who was the law’s rapporteur.
“Everyone is concerned. The goal is to improve the repair market, and I hope that this index will make consumers more aware of this ecological crisis,” she says.
The classification scheme was presented as the first of its kind in the world, setting the stage for other countries to follow this trend.
The expectation is that the French system will start a race between companies to improve the “repairability” of the products.
The activists believe that the measures will allow more people, as well as interested parties, such as repair shops, to carry out the work, which may lead to greater acceptance of the act of repair.
“Repair is not high on the [electronics] industry’s priority list,” says Maarten Depypere, repair policy engineer at iFixit Europe, a private company that produces product repair assessments.
“But France really took consumers into account with this law. It is a very balanced solution, which I think will generate more competition between companies. I believe that all countries should adopt it,” he says.
Preliminary studies suggest that the increase in repairs can have a big impact.
An analysis by the European Environment Office (EEB), a network of environmental organizations in Europe, concluded that extending the life of all washing machines, laptops, vacuum cleaners and smartphones in the European Union in one year it would save four million tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030, the equivalent of taking two million cars off the road every year.
However, activists see a serious flaw in France’s reparability index: the fact that the assessment will be made by the manufacturers themselves, and not by an independent body.
“Obviously, there is a risk of bias if manufacturers make their own classification,” says Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, responsible for EEB’s product policies and circular economy.
“But this is the first national seal of its kind. It shows that the issue of repair has become increasingly important. We don’t need to be Luddites [reference to the movement that took place in England in the 19th century that brought together industry workers against the ongoing technological advances. ], it’s about reinventing how we use technology “, he explains.
According to Schweitzer, several recent political developments reflect support for what has been called a “right to fix” by consumers.
In December 2019, the European Union adopted its first ecological design requirements for appliances, such as refrigerators, washing machines, lighting and screens.
This was followed by the European Union’s Green Agreement and the new Circular Economy Action Plan, with an explicit commitment to explore the “right to fix”.
Since then, the European Commission has launched consultation processes that have examined broader sets of products, such as fabrics, furniture and batteries.
More recently, in November, the European Parliament approved a report in favor of establishing stricter rules on the “right to fix”.
There are also advances at the national level.
In Austria, the government reduced VAT (Value Added Tax) by half on certain repairs to 10%, and several states have introduced a voucher system of up to 100 euros to finance repairs.
In Hungary, the government has extended the warranty period for certain household appliances to up to three years.
In addition, Australia has released a report on the “right to fix”, and conclusions are expected to be presented soon, while some US states have the right to fix in place for a decade, although it is mainly focused on vehicles.
These advances will also require significant changes in the way consumer goods manufacturers currently operate and in the products they produce, says Chloe Mikolajczak of the Right to Repair campaign, a coalition of 40 organizations in 15 European countries.
Many wireless headphones, she notes, cannot be taken apart or repaired; once the batteries are exhausted, they need to be discarded; while smartphones are increasingly complex with multiple cameras, which makes them more difficult to repair.
Software updates are part of that repairability, adds Mikolajczak, and manufacturers will need to keep older devices.
However, this is not always the case.
Speaker manufacturer Sonos was criticized in 2019 for a software feature that made older devices unusable.
And Apple has sparked controversy by intentionally reducing the computing capacity of older iPhones in a practice known as “programmed obsolescence”.