Repair, reduce, recycle: ways to tackle our mounting e-waste

  • This article was updated on 3 February, 2022.
  • US President Joe Biden has formally backed consumers’ rights to repair their electronic equipment, outlining progress since his executive order in 2021.
  • The world is predicted to produce 75 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2030.
  • It’s often considered cheaper to replace a product rather than repair it.
  • As awareness increases, free repair cafes and government incentives are popping up across the globe.

“When I have any problem with my phone, I call my daughter.”

So joked President Joe Biden during a recent cabinet meeting at the White House.

But he was making a serious point about the so-called ‘right to repair’, which was part of an executive order he issued in July 2021 to promote competition in the US economy – and ultimately reduce prices for consumers.

“It’s going to make it easier for millions of Americans to repair their electronics instead of paying an arm and a leg to repair or just throwing the device out.”

Global electrical waste (e-waste) is set to grow to almost 75 million metric tonnes by 2030 according to the United Nations Global E-waste Monitor report.

That’s concerning, not least because many of the products we’ve discarded could be reused, reducing the need to produce more, but also because e-waste tends to contain harmful chemicals that can leach into the environment.

The volume of e-waste generated worldwide is forecast to keep growing.

Image: Statista

Cutting back on what we get rid of is beneficial for the environment. A TV used for 13 years instead of six saves around 660kg of greenhouse gases, according to a study by Oeko-Institut in Germany. Using smartphones for seven years instead of two and a half saves around 100kg of greenhouse gases.

Changing the way we consume is at the heart of the solution, according to the World Economic Forum. A circular vision for the e-waste sector will promote the elimination of waste and could yield up to $4.5 trillion in economic benefits by 2030.

The good news is that emerging incentives, trends and laws are making it easier for consumers to repair their products. Here are a few examples:

The impact of Biden’s executive order

Six months ago, Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy recognized that smartphone and other tech companies were imposing “restrictions on self and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, such as by restricting the distribution of parts, diagnostics, and repair tools.”

The order urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to “issue rules against anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment”.

In his update in January, Biden said: “If you own a product, from a smartphone to a tractor, you don’t have the freedom to choose how or where to repair that item you purchased.

“…If it’s broke, you had to go to the dealer and you had to pay the dealer’s cost – the dealer’s price. If you tried to get it fixed [or] fix it yourself, some manufacturers actually would void the warranty when they sold to you or disable the features on that product they sold you.

“Denying the right to repair raises prices for consumers, means independent repair shops can’t compete for your business.”

Since the order, the FTC unanimously announced that it would ramp up enforcement against illegal repair restrictions, he added, while major companies voluntarily agreed to change their restrictions on repairs.

“For example, Apple and Microsoft are changing their policies so folks will be able to repair their phones and laptops themselves – although I’m not sure I know how to do that,” he said.

Laws and built-in design

Several countries besides the US are working to introduce laws that encourage consumers to repair and reuse.

The European Union introduced several initiatives, including the Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, Energy-related Products (ErP) Directive and the Ecodesign Directive to lower resource consumption and environmental impact.

France passed the Anti-Waste for a Circular Economy Act (AGEC) in 2020. Since January 2021, some French businesses have had to display a repairability score which gives a grade out of 10 – with 10 deemed the most repairable. The law applies to smartphones, laptops, televisions, washing machines and lawnmowers.

The Repairability Index displays a score with different colour variations to make it easier for consumers to note if a product has a good score (green) or a bad score (red).

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Scale360° Playbook Journey

Image: Scale360° Playbook

Its unique hub-based approach – launched this September – is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum’s open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

Connect to Learn More →

2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

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3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

Connect to Learn More →

The UK’s ‘Right to Repair’ law was introduced in July 2021 – aimed at extending the life of electronics and appliances by up to 10 years. It legally requires manufacturers to make spare parts available to citizens and third-party repair companies. But it only covers dishwashers, washing machines, washer-dryers, refrigeration appliances, televisions and electronic displays.

The Big Repair Project – a partnership between Brunel University London, Warwick University and University College London – aims to investigate how well the Right to Repair law achieves its aims.

Technology companies are also beginning to work repairability into their design process as consumers look for products that will last longer.

In November, as Biden notes, Apple unveiled a Self Service Repair initiative that gives customers access to iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 parts and tools. The service will expand to include parts for Apple Macs featuring M1 chips next year and will be available in the US first, followed by additional countries throughout 2022.

Microsoft recently released this video showing how straightforward it is to open up and swap components out of its Surface Laptop SE – a low-cost device aimed at children and educational institutions, where repairability is key.

Repair cafes and bonuses

One barrier to repair can be the cost compared with buying a new product. This year Austria and the German state of Thuringia introduced a publicly financed repair bonus to reimburse consumers for part of their costs.

Up to €100 per person is available under the bonus scheme if you have a defective electrical device repaired instead of opting for disposal. Thuringia introduced the programme in June and had run out of funds by October due to its popularity.

“Those who take good care of their defective devices will be rewarded,” says Thuringia’s Environment Minister Anja Siegesmund.

Repair cafes are cropping up worldwide, designed to encourage consumers to bring in their products. Run by volunteers, the cafes offer help with repairs and the maintenance of broken or faulty items.

With thousands of cafes worldwide, they are particularly popular in Belgium which has almost 2,000. The cafes can also assist with modifications such as improving the fit and appearance of clothing.


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