Eradicating e-waste: Why the UK’s right to repair laws are in urgent need of an upgrade

In this guest post, Katy Medlock, UK general manager at online refurbished devices marketplace Back Market, sets out why the UK’s right to repair legislation is in desperate need of a refresh to eradicate the problem of e-waste

The UK produces the second-highest per-person mass of electronic waste (e-waste) on Earth. That’s ahead of China, the USA, and India, according to date compiled by the United Nations.

And although Europe maintains a good recycling rate compared to the rest of the world, its comparative volume of waste remains enormous.

E-waste presents a problem because it causes severe damage to both the natural environment and human health. When treated with improper methods, toxic chemicals can leak into water supplies and the air.

According to research from the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), digital tech is responsible for four per cent of the world’s carbon footprint. The lifecycle of a smartphone causes between 80 and 90 percent of its carbon emissions during the production stage alone.

In short, the UK needs to curb its excessive production of e-waste by a radical margin, and our current legislation is insufficient to do so.

The UK introduced its first ‘right to repair’ legislation on 1 July 2021. The unprecedented regulations, based on EU law, required electronics manufacturers to make spare parts available for customers and repair shops. Companies selling certain devices in the UK would have to comply within two years.

UK electronics businesses selling wares in Europe would also need to comply with the EU laws introduced in March. These laws require manufacturers to construct devices in a way that facilitates easy repair and to make spare parts available at ‘fair market conditions’.

The principal aims of both the UK and EU laws are to reduce waste, reduce pressure on natural resources, and promote sustainable consumption. Politicians also hoped to tackle the ‘built-in obsolescence’ some manufacturers employed to increase the demand for new devices.

All sounding good? You’re right. News of the new regulations encouraged those supporting the right to repair movement, including Back Market. But there’s a catch. The UK’s right to repair laws exempt two of the biggest sources of e-waste: smartphones and laptops.

Considering smartphones make up 10% of the world’s e-waste, this exemption leaves a big gap in the legislation. It allows consumer electronics companies like Apple, which has one of the industry’s worst repairability records, to continue business as normal. The UK’s biggest laptop supplier, HPE, also goes untouched.

People have long criticised manufacturers for designing impossible-to-fix devices. The manufacturers fought back, claiming repairs were only difficult because of the slimline and intricate structure of their hardware. Despite such claims, there’s only one inevitable product of bad repairability: e-waste. Consumers will also continue to suffer the high costs of buying new devices when they reach their built-in obsolescence.

Stepping up to international standards

In January 2021, France decided to pioneer the world’s right to repair legislation. Its new laws require manufacturers to tell consumers how repairable their devices are by rating them using a ‘repairability index’.

Factors affecting the score include spare part availability and ease of deconstruction. French government research discovered the index dissuaded customers from buying new laptops because of the low scores across the market.

Following France, the US Public Interest Research Group released a report  in March 2022 that graded smartphone and laptop manufacturers based on their repairability. Apple, which holds over half of the UK’s mobile market share, scored worst. Recent Macbook Air and Macbook Pro models received 3/10 scores. The iPhone 7 received 2.75/10. Tech giants Microsoft and Google also received bad scores compared to other manufacturers like Dell and Asus.

The new laws and reports highlighted the scale of the problem, and highlight why the UK must include smartphones and laptops in its right to repair legislation to align with foreign standards.

An update to the legislation would also provide an opportune moment to introduce other relevant changes. The list of included devices also exempts cookers, hobs, microwaves, tumble dryers, and non-retail devices like electric motors and retail fridges. Repair manuals are left out too. These exemptions only serve to profit electronics manufacturers, and should be removed.

The regulations also fail to specify the pricing of spare parts. So while the regulations may require manufacturers to provide spare parts, there’s no guarantee they’ll do so at affordable prices.

So while the introduction of the right to repair regulations last year took the UK in a promising direction, important adjustments must still be made. Post-Brexit, it’s crucial we prove our commitment to global environmental initiatives and step down from the world’s e-waste producer podium.

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