Consumer “Right to Repair” – Part 1 – UK Legislation

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E-Waste – Source: Patrick on Wikimedia Commons

Ed: This is the first of three articles exploring what we know about the proposed UK legislation on the Consumer “Right to Repair”, its impact on the consumer and how another country legislates within the EU “Eco Design Directive”.

If you belong to my generation (well over 25!), I’m pretty sure you will have at one time or another said:

“I remember when?
They don’t make them like they used to!
How come it fails one week after the warranty expires?” 

I’m sure there are dozens more anecdotal phrases expressing the same point. And why is this such a topic for discussion now? We all know the reasons why it’s like this. Or do we?

In a few months time in Glasgow the UK government will be hosting the COP26 international conference on global environmental impact and how all nations can help tackle the issues surrounding and causing the climate crisis.

But is the UK government really in a global leader position to influence other nations’ thinking when we won’t pass the necessary legislation to make manufacturers design and build their products and services to extend the working life of those consumer products we rely on so much in our daily lives.  And worse, we (the UK) are the world’s second worst offender in generating more e-waste per person than any country in the world with the exception of Norway, according to the UN Global e-waste monitor in 2020, outranking both the US and China. As iNews reported in November 2020, on average each person in the UK created 23.9kg of e-waste in 2019, compared to the EU average of 16.2kg and global average of 7.3kg. Norway topped the list with 26kg per person, compared to 21kg in the US and 20.2kg in China. That’s an awful lot of waste gong to UK landfill or being exported. Potentially a vast amount of these disposed of products could be recycled, re-purposed or, most importantly, repaired to extend their working life. So why don’t we (the UK) do it?

One reason is that we consumers want to have the best, the newest electronic or electrical gizmo which creates “throw-away society”. Another is that we lack comprehensive legislation that directs all manufacturers to extend the working life of all their ‘new’ products to a minimum of say 10 years. 

To do this we need a much better consumer “Right to Repair” law than the UK government implemented on 1 July 2021. Does this law actually benefit of the consumer or the manufacturer? Online magazine WIRED doesn’t think so! We need to understand how this poorly conceived legislation affect you and me as consumer as well as service agencies, engineers and repairers. There are many volunteer repair groups across the UK who try to fix a vast range of household products to extend their working life.

As one of the organisers for the Cirencester Repair Café (recently featured on West England Bylines) and a ‘have a go – repair anything’ optimist, I have a keen interest on what this new legislation would bring to the Consumer. However I fear a golden opportunity has been lost by the UK Government. 

Global technology and manufacturing companies have fought long and hard to stop, or significantly water down, the original EU Eco-Design Directive, that would significantly reduce the amount of products going to landfill, whilst extending the working life of the products which we the Consumer purchase.    

So what has the UK government done?

Firstly there was this statement from Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng in March 2021:

“Our plans to tighten product standards will ensure more of our electrical goods can be fixed rather than thrown on the scrap heap, putting more money back in the pockets of consumers whilst protecting the environment. 

Going forward, our upcoming energy efficiency framework will push electrical products to use even less energy and material resources, saving people money on their bills and reducing carbon emissions as we work to reach net zero by 2050.”

The aims are admirable and in principal they target the need to:

  • improve energy usage efficiency
  • extend household electrical and electronic product lifespan
  • design out built-in obsolescence
  • and thereby reduce carbon emissions and e-waste etc.

All the really good things we the consumer have wanted and expected from our manufacturers for many decades.

The announcement from the Gov.UK website states:

New tighter rules for how much energy white goods like washing machines and fridges as well as TVs can use will help save British consumers £75 a year on their energy bills

Manufacturers required to make spare parts for products available for the first time – helping extend the lifespan of products by up to 10 years and preventing them ending up on the scrap heap sooner than they should

New energy labels introduced as part of UK plans to drive up product standards and build back greener

As consumers, here are some of the benefits we should expect, according to that same Gov.UK website:

Manufacturers will be legally obliged to make spare parts for products available to consumers for the first time – a new legal right for repairs. So electrical appliances can be fixed easily.

Expected to extend the lifespan of products by up to 10 years

Preventing appliances ending up on the scrap heap sooner than they should

reducing carbon emissions – the UK generates around 1.5 million tonnes of electrical waste every year, most goes to landfill, not reused or recycled.

Set far higher energy-efficiency standards for electrical products

Overall will save consumers an average of £75 a year on energy bills.

Cut 8 mega tonnes of carbon emissions in 2021 by reducing the amount of energy products consume over their life-time – the equivalent of removing all emissions from Birmingham and Leeds each year.

What can we really expect?

There are very few details of exactly what the UK legislation has adopted from the EU Eco Design Directive.  This detail is not in the public domain! Only the manufacturers have had access to the detail, criteria and standards put into the legislation. Perhaps that’s why they have lobbied so hard to get specific areas suppressed, changed or pushed towards being ‘self managed’. This is rarely in the consumers interest. 

On the surface it sounds good, optimistic, encouraging, but can it but that simple? Is it all what it seems and why has it taken so long for the UK Government to implement parts if not all of the EU Eco-Design Directive? 

Some facts to consider:

  • Each year e-waste costs the UK an estimated £370 Million in lost raw materials, such as copper, gold,
  • Only 5% of rare earth materials in discarded mobile phones, tablets, displays etc are actually recovered/recycled. 95% gets thrown away because it’s too difficult to recover!!
  • UK households and businesses produce reusable and recyclable e-waste weighing 1.45million tonnes per year. 500,000 tonnes is lost through being thrown away, hoarded or illegally exported. The UK was ranked the worst offender in 2019.
  • Initially the UK will only be implementing legislation that covers certain electrical ‘white goods’ or household products. For example, TV’s, washing machines, washer-dryers, dish washers, fridges and vacuum cleaners.
  • Excluded are all electronics products such as: radios, printers, mobile phones, laptops, computers, tablets, PC monitors etc basically anything electronic or electrical not included in the list above.

What We Know So Far:

Here are a few examples about the new Eco-Design Directive regulations, which also now apply to the UK.

  • If the light bulb inside your fridge stops working, you will not be able to buy a replacement directly and replace it yourself. The regulation only gives professional repairers guaranteed access to spare light bulbs.
  • If your television breaks, you will only be able to buy external power supplies (kettle leads) and remote controls. That’s it! All other spare parts, including anything inside of the television, will only be accessible to professional authorised repairers.
  • If you smash your television screen, manufacturers will not have to provide replacement screens, even to professional repairers.
  • If you suffer a software or circuit board fault on your fridge, dishwasher or washing machine, the new measures will bring game-changing access to replacement boards and to software, making many more commercial repairs possible.
  • If the ball bearing goes on your washing machine, the regulation allows manufacturers to “bundle” multiple spare parts together, with big negative consequences. It means that manufacturers might force a commercial repairer to buy the whole, sealed drum plus ball bearing. And this probably renders the repair economically unviable.
  • There is no proposed limit on the cost of replacement spare parts. If a manufacturer decides to triple or quadruple the ‘selling price’ of a spare part, perhaps previously affordable and made a repair economic, basically the manufacturer could now charge anything they like.
  • After buying a new fridge, television, dishwasher or washing machine, there will be a lack of access to repair manuals, schematics and spare parts during the first two years after a product’s launch. This might limit your ability to make informed decision about what product to purchase.

As regards the proposed legislation to “design out built-in obsolescence”, manufacturers have been using designed-in or planned obsolescence for nearly a hundred years.  Check out the ‘Light Bulb Conspiracy’. It gives a good insight into what has been going on around us for many decades and how we got to where we are today. 

Ed: In Part 2 Colin looks at how we have been enveloped in a throwaway disposable consumer market. He gives examples of the impact of the new legislation on the freedom of the consumer.

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