Recently the EU, when not dealing with Brexit or the rise of right wing populists, proposed something rather sensible, a right to repair. Increasingly many white goods, such as washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners have become more and more difficult to repair. In part this is simply because the complexity of such products is growing (notably the increasing dependence on software and electronics). But there’s also been complaints that companies are actively making repair impossible. By for example riveting or gluing components together rather than using bolts. Or not including user manuals with repair instructions, or not selling spare parts.
Case in point, I have a microwave in my kitchen and the bulb has gone. Yet there is no way for me to physically remove and replace the bulb without breaking the machine. The manual tells me that they don’t sell spare bulbs anyway so my options are to either throw it away, or if its within warranty, bring it back to the store for a refund (the bulb actually broke about a few weeks before the warranty ran out). Now, as its otherwise working fine, I’ve just opted for not being able to see inside the machine while it cooks, as I see no good reason to otherwise throw away a perfectly good microwave.
And evidence suggests that the life expectancy of white goods has been dropping. In the case of washing machines for example, within the last decade the life expectancy has dropped from ten years to now around seven years. And where once there was a thriving repair industry for such devices, its getting harder and harder to find a repair person. And often, for the reasons mentioned above, they’ll just not be able to fix it (at least not without putting you into negative equity very quickly), or get spare parts.
And this has an impact on the environment. The life cycle environmental impact of any device includes a big chuck related to its initial manufacture and the extraction of raw materials. While some of this is returned when the device is broken up, you won’t get it all back. Some parts aren’t recyclable and even then we’re assuming a 100% efficient recycling system, whereby all white goods are collected and recycled. And that doesn’t always happen.
On the other hand however, lets look at it from the point of view of the manufacturer. There are, as the saying goes, users and abusers. Manufacturers often have good legal reasons to discourage people from going poking around inside their products with a screw driver. You have to know what you are doing. Take my microwave, there are safety issues with microwaves that need to be considered (i.e. not compromising the shielding and ending up turning your kitchen into Fukushima). And unfortunately the least qualified people are often the most likely to overestimate their abilities.
There’s also the matter of planned obsolescence, something I tackled in a post before, but which this documentary explains rather well. In essence manufacturers typically design a product to have a certain design life and assume it will fail within this time frame. They might even include some software code that, for example, tells your printer to stop working after its printed x million pages. While this is done in part to increase sales (by forcing you to buy a new device) its also done for safety reasons. E.g. after a certain period of time the risk of a catastrophic failure (the sort that could cause injury to someone or start a fire) climbs dramatically, and the company wants to make sure the product is taken out of service well before that happens.
Finally, returning to the point about life cycle analysis. More often than not with appliances the majority of carbon emissions and pollution will occur during the usage phase. So by extending this usage phase, particularly when increasingly more energy efficient devices are coming on the market, you can end up increasing carbon emissions rather than decreasing them. And of course electricity costs money. Beyond a certain tipping point you are just better off scrapping your old fridge and getting a more energy efficient model instead.
So while I do support this EU initiative, I’d include a few caveats. Firstly, that it is made clear to customers that if they choose to fiddle with their appliances they are voiding their warranty and if they electrocute themselves or burn down their house, that’s their fault not the manufacturers. Presumably this would mean giving the manufacturers some protection to rule out such lawsuits.
And make do and mend has its limits. Beyond a certain point you are just better off scraping appliances. Making people more aware of this would be sensible. And clearly recycling rates need to improve. This means more reversible logistics, where manufacturers take back their products afterwards for refurbishing, repair and ultimately dismantling and recycling (the cost of which being charged to the consumer upon purchasing the item in the first place). So some pragmatic give and take is needed here.