The UK government’s right to repair legislation will help to both reduce electronic waste (e-waste) and curb “planned obsolescence” practices but, as it fails to address affordability and omits key products contributing to the issue, there is room for improvement, according to data sanitisation firm Blancco.
The legislation, which was announced by government on 10 March and came into effect on 8 July, makes it easier for consumers to repair white goods such as washing machines, dishwashers and fridges, as well as products with “electronic displays” like TVs.
Under the rules, manufacturers of these goods – which have been given a two-year window to make the necessary changes to their business – are obliged to make spare parts available so consumers can carry out repairs, either themselves or through a third party supplier.
Currently, while the intentionality is debated, evidence given to Parliament by environmental experts suggests that many manufacturers deliberately build appliances to break down after a certain period, requiring consumers to buy completely new products to replace the old one.
This practice, known as planned obsolescence, is especially costly to the planet as it means more goods are disposed of, often improperly, ending up in landfill rather than kept functioning.
Speaking with Computer Weekly, head of global strategy at Blancco, Alan Bentley, said while the legislation has been sold on very consumer-focused grounds, its importance lies in how it will change the behaviour of manufacturers.
“It’s a nice thing to give the consumer the option, but really it’s about making sure, in my opinion, that these goods are not literally just made for a two or three year turn around and then, bang, they’re gone,” he said, adding while the legislation is “definitely a step in the right direction”, there are still a number of issues that could undercut it’s success.
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“The requirements are a little bit vague, so one wonders how much impact it will have,” he said. “So, for example, it says you got to have the right to get spare parts but it doesn't put any kind of cap on whether you can bundle those parts together, or what the cost of the parts is… so it could cost you almost as much as buying a new one.
“Then of course they’ve got to provide you with the capability of knowing how to fit said new part, and that’s not in the legislation either so there’s no onus on the manufacturer to provide very clear instruction on how to repair said good.”
However, despite the potentially prohibitive cost of new parts and the existence of an information barrier that prevents people from carrying out the repair themselves, Bentley added the legislation also has the potential to significantly disrupt manufacturers’ supply chains, because sending parts directly to consumers changes the businesses approach to logistics and manufacturing.
“Those are all complicated financial models that you have to try and build into your business… so I think two years is not a short window,” he said.
Approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, most of which is either incinerated or dumped in the landfills of the world’s poorest countries. According to the Global e-waste monitor, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes was produced worldwide in 2019.
The UK specifically produces more e-waste than any other country apart from Norway, at 24.9kg a year per person, nearly 10kg more than the European Union (EU) average.
“A lot of it goes to landfill, incineration or is dumped overseas. Under current laws, producers and retailers of electronics are responsible for this waste, yet they are clearly not fulfilling that responsibility,” wrote the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in a November 2020 report.
It further noted that roughly 40% of the UK’s e-waste is sent abroad, which “is illegal”.
However, although the UK has a clear and growing e-waste problem, the right to repair legislation does not cover smartphones or laptops – key products contributing to the issue – despite its inclusion of “electronic displays”.
Bentley believes this could be due to the fact that many manufacturers of these devices – including Apple, Dell and HPE – have already managed to establish “a very clear circular economy around secondhand devices… [which is] much bigger now than it was five years ago”.
He added that, in terms of repairing phones specifically, the parts needed are so small and specific, and the problems that can occur within the device are so complex, that it would not be reasonable to expect consumers to carry out repairs themselves.
In this case, recycling – either by breaking down the raw materials for new devices or exchanging them as secondhand goods – would be preferable to repair, as it elongates the life of the asset and keeps it from landfill as long as possible.
“[The legislation] is a good testbed, we can see how well it operates and how well it works, and hopefully expand it to other areas of electronic goods,” said Bentley, adding this could include internet of things devices such as smart fridges, or even the batteries for electric vehicles, down the line as the adoption curve of such technologies picks up.