A new report from the UK's House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) argues the country should enshrine the "right to repair" in law and reduce VAT on tech repair services, while Europe's Parliamentarians also voted to further the cause.
The EAC report said tech manufacturers were failing in their duties to limit the amount of e-waste generated in the UK each year.
The paper, called Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy, cites UN statistics stating the UK produces the second-highest amount of e-waste per capita globally, after Norway. At 23.9kg per person, this vastly exceeds the world average of 7.3kg per capita, as well as European averages, at 16.2kg.
Not all the blame is pointed at retailers and vendors. Consumer habits play a huge role. Faulty or obsolete electronics aren't always properly recycled. They languish in the loft, or are sent to the landfill with other household waste. Households were responsible for sending 155,000 tonnes of e-waste to landfill and incinerators in 2017, with an additional 190,000 tonnes hoarded at home. Businesses produced a further 145,000 tonnes.
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And that's before we even mention the indeterminate amount of obsolete tech (estimated between 32,000 tonnes and 209,000 tonnes) illegally exported to the third world, where precious metals are extracted in the most harmful and exploitative conditions, sometimes by children.
We all share a degree of culpability, but the activities of some vendors definitely don't help. The paper references design practices where previously easy-to-remove components, such as hard drives and memory, are now soldered to circuit boards, or affixed to the chassis with intractable dollops of glue.
Apple, of course, is among the worst offenders. But these practices aren't merely limited to IT. They've crept into the world of white goods. Some washing machines, for example, have their drums fixed in place. When they fail, the only option is to buy a new one.
Independent shops rejoice
The committee's recommendations pertaining to the right to repair are surprisingly reflective of the difficulties faced by independent repair shops, which are facing an existential threat due to the deliberate design decisions made by large technology manufacturers. The report said any law should not only address the lack of publicly accessible repair documentation, which are typically reserved for in-house and authorised technicians, but also ensure that independent repair shops have access to essential components.
It's the last point that will prove most useful for independent repair shops. While access to documentation can expedite a repair, skilful technicians can reverse-engineer a circuit board by looking at it closely, identifying what components are used, and working out how they relate. But if they are unable to access replacement components, things become massively more complicated. In the absence of new working chips straight from the factory, repair shops are often forced to salvage working components from donor computers.
The committee also recommended independent repair shops be able to operate without the need to acquire proprietary physical or software tools, which are all too often gatekeeping measures designed to control the market artificially. The recent release of the iPhone 12 exemplified this harmful behaviour after it transpired repair shops would need access to a proprietary cloud tool to replace the phone's camera module – a fix that is otherwise trivial to perform.
These proprietary measures don't just limit who can fix a product, but also how they work. Right-to-repair activist Louis Rossmann described this problem while testifying in a civil trial in Norway, noting independent repair shops can perform circuit-level repairs on Apple logic boards, while authorised technicians would likely be forced to replace the logic board entirely.
This is fundamentally wasteful. If the problem is just a broken capacitor, you don't need to throw away the entire board – just replace the capacitor. And, because switching out the logic board entails brand-new RAM, graphics, processor, and storage, this often means consumers are paying vastly more for what would otherwise be a straightforward repair.
A change in consumption patterns
Although the committee hopes to make the day-to-day operations of independent repair shops that little bit easier, they also want to make repairing more economically enticing for consumers than wholesale replacement. The report does not say precisely how much it would wish to see VAT reduced by, although it points to other European countries where the tactic has been used to great effect. For example, in Sweden, consumers can write off 50 per cent of the labour costs for repair, making out-of-warranty fixes more attractive.
Although identifying product design as a major contributor to e-waste, the committee did not recommend legally binding rules that would force vendors to design with repairability in mind. Compared to the US, China, and mainland Europe, the UK is a small market, and any attempt to force manufacturers to adopt user-serviceable components may limit consumer choice.
Instead, the committee has gone for a gentler guiding hand, recommending products be labelled with a repairability score. This inevitably overlaps with the iFixit scores, which are the by-product of independent testing and teardowns. But in many respects, this guidance goes a step further, with the score incorporating the availability and cost of spare parts, as well as access to documentation. These scores will help inform consumer choice, although the report recommends manufacturers of easily repairable products be rewarded with reduced fees for the extended producer responsibility scheme contributions.
Across the pond, the right-to-repair movement has met a ferocious pushback from the industry, which argues any legislation would threaten intellectual property rights, and pose risks to consumer safety. The best example comes from Massachusetts, where the technology industry unsuccessfully countered an initiative with a series of slick scare ads designed to sow fear and uncertainty.
Perhaps anticipating this, the committee has recommended a collaborative approach that would see activists and industry collaborate to create professional standards. Separately, TechUK has called for any repair bill to protect intellectual property rights in the after-sales repair market while recognising authorised repair networks' trusted status. ®