HackSpace magazine

Campaigning for the Right to Repair

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

Most people who like making things also like to take things apart. We love to see how things work, and the best way to do that is to break them,
then put them back together again. It’s like a puzzle game, but one in which you win a prize of an ‘extra’ nut or bolt.

However, this simple joy is at risk of being extinguished. Appliance manufacturers all too often use hard-to-find screws, or glue things together, meaning that it’s getting harder to fix the things that you own.

And in some cases, you’re not even legally allowed to fix your own stuff.

Thankfully, there are a number of organisations fighting against this rising tide of waste, ignorance, and restriction, including the Restart Project, a London-based organisation campaigning in the UK and Europe to protect our right to repair.

We spoke to Restart’s co-founder, Ugo Vallauri, about the green economy, recycling, and why it’s essential that we have the freedom to repair the stuff we own.

Ugo Vallauri at the Restart of office in Brixton, London

Hackspace magazine: The United Nations says that the UK is the second highest producer of e-waste per capita. What are we doing wrong?

Ugo Vallauri: It’s obvious that a country with the kind of economy of the UK would be one of the highest producers of e-waste. Yes, we are consuming too much and too fast, but we’re also not very efficient, compared to some other countries, at collecting the products we no longer use for recycling.

At the Restart Project, we first believe that we should consume more slowly than we do now, and that when products are no longer used by the first user, we should try to reuse them, by reselling them, giving them away. When certain products reach the end of their useful lifespan, we are extremely inefficient – around the world generally, but in the UK in particular – at collecting all kinds of electronic products.

This is particularly true for smaller products that a lot of people are still adding to their non-recycling waste, so they end up in landfill because they’re small. Obviously, it wouldn’t be possible to do this with a washing machine, but it’s perfectly possible to do with a kettle or a toaster.

Repair activists from around the world will convene at the global Fixfest happening in Berlin from 20–22 September 2019

On average, around the world, we are still very inefficient at recycling electronics, and a high proportion of them simply don’t get recycled at all – more than half of all electronics are not recycled.

On top of that, there is a misconception that recycling is always the best thing to do. Many critical raw materials used in smartphones aren’t recycled at all, such as beryllium (used in connectors), gallium (in integrated circuits), indium (in touchscreens) and silicon metal (in microchips).

For other materials, the amount of recycling is extremely low, including graphite (used in batteries), neodymium (in microphones) and tantalum (in microcapacitors).

It gets worse than that. In the life cycle of a smartphone, for example, the iconic product of this generation, approximately 80% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions linked to the whole life cycle of the product have to do with the manufacturing stage.

It becomes very obvious that the only thing we can do to reduce the environmental impact of using all these products is to make fewer of them. Obviously when you’re talking about a fridge or an oven, there’s a significant amount of energy used in the use phase, but when you compare it with small battery-powered products, during the use phase you’re going to be using maybe 15% of the overall carbon emissions of the overall life cycle of that product.

Which means that the only environmentally sound option is to keep using, repairing, reusing, and extending the lifespan of that product as much as possible, before it reaches the recycling phase.

HS Magazine:
I’ve seen the argument that modern appliances are more energy-efficient, and therefore it’s more environmentally responsible to upgrade your laptop, for example, for something that uses less energy.

UV: That is absolutely wrong. This only applies to things like your fridge and other larger appliances. All evidence points to exactly the opposite. If you were to look at the energy consumption in use for a laptop, in order to make up for the proportion of environmental damage caused by that product during the manufacturing phase, you would have to keep a laptop in use for ten years to make up for that.

Of course, when you’re buying a new product, it makes sense to consider energy efficiency as one of the criteria. It is a useful way to understand how much money you might save during the use phase, but this does not take into consideration how much energy and materials are employed during the manufacturing phase.

This is why we are campaigning for the right to repair, which among other things involves pushing for better regulations that prevent manufacturers from making products that do not meet minimum requirements of repairability, such as being near-impossible to disassemble for repair; providing as many spare parts as possible for as long as possible; and providing access to repair manuals and instructions to facilitate repair for everyone, and not just for professional repairers, which for a lot of products no longer exists widely in our communities.

I don’t mean smartphones, tablets, and other IT products – they’ve generated a thriving repair community. But for many other products that people tend to bring to repair events like our Restart Parties or to Repair Cafés, such as kettles, toasters, printers, headphones, hair straighteners, hair dryers, and many other products.

On average we in the UK each produce 24.9kg of e-waste per year

HS Magazine: Yes! We visited a Repair Café earlier this year. It’s amazing how many simple appliances are designed to stop you from fixing them when they break.

UV: That’s exactly why we’re campaigning, with our partners across Europe, to push for a European-wide movement for right to repair. We know that for many products there simply is no regulation whatsoever limiting the power of manufacturers to just do whatever makes the most sense to them, irrespective of the environment.

For some products, some regulation exists, and we’ve actually pushed the option of initial minimal right to repair and repair provisions in European legislations. From 2021, new televisions, electronic screens, dishwashers, and fridges that come to the EU market will have to have a list of spare parts available for at least seven years after the product is taken out of the market, as well as access to repair manuals and design that allows accessing those spare parts without further damaging the appliance that you’re trying to fix, which unfortunately is very frequent.

You need to be able to fix the things you own: if you can’t fix it, you don’t really own it.

Unfortunately, the manufacturers have been able to water down our proposals. Access to the wider set of spare parts and to repairer information will be restricted to what are called ‘professional’ repairers, which would leave a lot to be desired. For example, this means that if you need to replace the light bulb within your fridge, you as an ordinary citizen might not be able to buy the light bulb for your fridge, but a professional repairer might be able to do that for you. Which doesn’t make any sense to us.

Obviously there will be manufacturers that provide you with better access, but we need regulations to be more ambitious. This is a good start, but we need it to be more universal in terms of what you can access and in terms of what kind of products are included in these measures. The biggest target for our work in campaigning on the right to repair is to have smartphones be regulated as well.

HS Magazine: If access to spare parts is limited to professionals, what constitutes a professional? Who decides who’s a professional person?

UV: The regulations state that member states will have to have a register of professional repairers, which includes repairers that are insured for the work that they do. Where such a register doesn’t exist, it will be up to the manufacturer to accept or reject a request for spare parts or access to manuals for professional repairs.

So, it will be up to the manufacturers to determine whether someone is a professional or not, which is fairly worrying, because it could potentially create the conditions for only authorised repairers performing certain types of repairs agreed by the manufacturers, which is pretty much what’s happening right now.

HS Magazine: Still, a start though, to have the need recognised?

UV: Absolutely, it's a start. and that's why we want to use this precedent to push for much wider adoption of measures that translate this concept to all kinds of other products. The case of smartphones is quite shocking – we’re talking about globally over 1.5 billion new devices sold per year.

We see that there’s a very recent trend of people wanting to keep products in use for longer, and we’re pretty sure that if conditions were simplified for people to extend the useful life of a product by making it easier to access repair when a button goes wrong – or a speaker, or a camera, or a charging port, which we see quite frequently, or more reliable battery replacement – this trend will be more prevalent, and we will see a longer lifetime for this product, which will be win-win for the environment, and also for providing a more vibrant local economy for repair.

Repair jobs are the original green jobs. They provide jobs for individuals in local communities, as opposed to continuing to buy and upgrade to new products that rely on poor working conditions elsewhere in the world. At a time of climate emergency, we have a chance to put things right by promoting more repair and reuse of products and less of a throwaway economy.

HS Magazine: That’s European lobbying that you’ve been doing — have you done much with the UK government? I know that you’ve won the backing of the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats. How have you been getting on with Labour and the Conservatives?

UV: Last October, in Manchester, we gathered 59 repair activists from across the UK who took part in Fixfest, our national gathering.

We co-wrote the Manchester Declaration, which has been signed by over 40 community repair groups and 15 organisations supporting it, asking for all barriers to repair to be taken down. (The Greens and the Liberal Democrats already support this.) We received endorsement for the Declaration from our first two Labour MPs: Helen Hayes in Brixton and Tulip Siddiq from Hampstead and Kilburn.

We have groups around the country that are actively reaching out to their MPs from all parties to invite them to community repair events and ask them to endorse the Declaration, so we foresee a lot more cross-party support on this front.

If it is true that the UK government is aiming to do better than what Europe is trying to achieve, then this is a very good opportunity to ask any manufacturer of any product that’s sold in the UK market to make spare parts and repair manuals available to everyone, right away. There’s an opportunity to lead in their area, if only there were the willingness to do it. That’s what we’re working towards.

The UK, Germany, and Italy have historically had large manufacturing sectors, and perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when the regulations for refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and the like were discussed, there were three countries that were seen to be blocking the regulations: the UK, Germany, and Italy.

And so we put pressure specifically on these countries, to prevent further watering down.

And by the way, this is not just in the interest of consumers; it’s also in the interests of repairers of all kinds, because repairs will be faster, better, and easier. And it’s also in the interests of the work done at the end of the product’s life, by the recyclers: if a product is designed for disassembly, it’s designed so that more of the components that still work can be removed. It’s in everyone’s interest.

Proper regulation will mean a level playing field, so manufacturers can compete without undermining consumer rights and the environment. Until this happens, they will always try to defend the status quo. Also, they use the argument that repairs shouldn’t be allowed because it is not safe for other people to access the product they have made. We think that, actually, lack of documentation access to the official precise repair documentation might create cases where repair becomes less safe, because people might use alternative sources that might be less reliable.

HS Magazine: I remember that argument ” from John Deere (US maker of tractors, combine harvesters, and other agricultural equipment), that allowing non-authorised repairs would be dangerous.

UV: The John Deere case is interesting because it opens
up the other big issue, which is that of software. In the United
States, a big part of the fight for the right to repair is intellectual property.

In the case of John Deere, the question was: ‘can a company lock access to a product by installing a piece of software that will make it impossible for a product repaired by a third party to be used again unless it’s verified again by the manufacturer?’

This is a really big issue and, more broadly, extended firmware support and security updates for products is one growing cause of concern that’s not yet tackled by regulation either. At a time when people already want to keep their smartphones for longer – or TVs for that matter – how can we justify manufacturers making two or three years of security updates and then abandoning products?

It’s contributing to premature obsolescence. Why is it that Google doesn’t provide ten years’ worth of security updates to the phones that it provides software updates to? It has the capacity to do that, so why doesn’t it?

Could we think of devices with a kill switch, so the moment the smart element of the device is no longer secure, we can turn it off and use it as a non-smart device, the way we used to use devices before, without compromising safety or security depending on the product?

These are some of the trends we have seen. Software is increasingly the reason people give up on a product, and it’s not repairable unless it can be substituted with a free and open-source alternative, which is the case for quite a lot of products.

It’s a real decision by a manufacturer to stop supporting a product. This is not about conspiracy theories; it is a real decision and there is a plan to say no more support after a certain day. There are consequences to this.

However, that said, the trends we’ve seen in computers preventing any hardware upgrade – because RAM is soldered on the motherboard, SSD drives are soldered as well, or they are provided for some models with proprietary connectors so they cannot be found in the market, and a lack of ports – is certainly something that we see as extremely worrying.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about creating an economy that makes more sense for people and the planet. To repair and reuse can be an essential part of this. No data would contradict what I’m about to say that it is environmentally more efficient to extend the use case of the current product, rather than recuperating some materials and some components to make a brand new product to be sold again in the market.

You can create a lot more jobs by having a proper maintenance and reuse economies to prevent unnecessary recycling and unnecessary throwing away of products that are already manufactured.

Make use of whatever resource you already have; keep using and making the most of the component that you already have – this should be at the heart of every tinkerer. Use your amazing skills to contribute to a future where people and planet are a lot happier, by preventing waste and ensuring that everything is used to the fullest that is possible.