Repair, not replace: Key to tackling climate change

Europe’s initiative has strong Asian influence

Business

Environment

March 29, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Repair, not replace: Key to tackling climate change

Market for domestic appliances has expanded multifold in developing nations over past few decades. (MIG Photos)

Europe, notably Germany, takes lead in tackling electronic waste by asking companies and consumers alike to try and repair their electronic goods rather than throwing them away. Other governments need to follow suit. Asia, including India, that has traditionally been the pioneer in repairing to extend lifecycles of numerous products, far beyond electronic goods, needs to ensure that instead of following the flawed western culture of disposing off goods, it must strengthen the practice even more as a way to fight climate change and waste generation.

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Thirungia region in Germany is offering residents up to 100 Euros for not throwing away their smartphones, but repair them and continue to use them. Similar repair bonus is also available for other consumer electronic items like laptops and domestic appliances. The scheme is soon likely to be adopted by other regions in Germany.

The incentives are part of a Europe-wide movement, right to repair, which has gained tremendous political and economic clout over the past few years. Two years ago, faced with sharp criticism over mounting heaps of wastes due to large-scale consumption, the European Union imposed comprehensive Right to Repair law that makes it mandatory for manufacturers to make it easier for the consumers and professional repairers to repair and refurbish all electronic durables.

The law has since been applied across the entire EU and even Britain has kept the provision though it is no longer member of the Union since Brexit last year. Repair cafés have sprung up all over Germany providing a vast network of professionals so that consumers don’t have to hunt around to get their equipment fixed. Part of the right to repair law also makes it mandatory for all manufacturers to ensure that spare parts would be readily available as lack of access to spares in time is one of the main reasons behind the mountains of electronic waste around the world.

By increasing the lifecycle of these products will go a long way in dramatically reducing the number of these appliances ending up in the waste dumps each year. This benefits the environment in many ways as it reduces the need for new resources for manufacturing new products, while simultaneously reducing the number of products being disposed off by consumers.

The amount of electronic waste produced globally rose from 33.8 million tonnes in 2010 to 53.6 million tonnes in 2019, a growth of 70 pc in less than a decade. A large part of this waste is due to small gadgets, mainly smartphones, video game consoles and laptops, followed by large domestic appliances and by air conditioning and heating equipment.

The amount of electronic waste produced has been growing at about 5 pc each year. Since the pandemic, it would have only risen due over the past two years as everyone was locked inside their homes and forcing them to use the digital domain to conduct practically ever activity, including education, their work as well as shopping. Though sales of electronic goods slowed down in most countries in the first two quarters of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, since then it has risen in practically all parts of the world and is now believed to be higher than the pre-pandemic levels, even though the broader economy still lags behind the 2019 level in many countries.

Another area where the use of electronic gadgets has risen is related to health, with digital thermometers and pulse oxymeters becoming household goods as people struggled to get their health checkups during the pandemic. Thus, one can reasonably expect a jump in the volume of these goods ending up in garbage dumps in not-too-distant future.

So far, the right to repair movement has gained traction and political capital in Europe, Canada and the United States, partly because these three have historically figured at the top of per capita e-waste generators at about 20 kg per person per year in North America and 16.1 kg in Europe.

Keeping traditions alive in Asia, Africa

Though Asia and Africa figure way below in the list, with barely 5.6 kg per person, it is important for them to quickly adopt the laws enforcing strict compliance with right to repair. There is no doubt that both these regions have historically had a very strong repair network, even if informal, mainly due to the fact that buying new gadgets is still very expensive for consumers here and there are ample repair professionals available that can fix a phone or a laptop for the fraction of the cost of replacement of these gadgets.

Boom in mobile phone market in India has already seen sharp rise in e-waste production in the country. (MIG Photos)

However, this trend has been changing for two main reasons. One is that with advancing technology, many companies have made it harder for informal repair shops to be able to get hold of spares to repair their gadgets and also because due to the rapidity that they introduce their new products, with ever more patented items, it does take some time for the market to adapt to these technologies and overcome the barriers.

Another factor that makes e-waste a growing worry is the unfair practice adopted by many, if not most, manufacturers around the world, who have put in lifecycle limits on their products, in order to force consumers to buy rather than repair. One famous case was Apple’s malpractice of installing software in their phones that would slow down their functioning after some years to the point that a consumer would be obliged to buy a new phone. Similar limitations have been imposed, immorally and even illegally, by manufacturers of a vast array of consumer goods.

But it is not only due to the manufacturers that e-waste is becoming a bigger global headache. Consumers, too, are responsible. While for long the rich country buyers have been more concerned with the feel-good factor for buying new gadgets rather than absolute need, this behaviour is increasingly seen in the developing economies also where rising disposable incomes, at least for some people in most of the developing countries, have led consumers to buy new gadgets more due to desire than need and for them to junk their older gadgets rather than get them fixed, even if fixing is neither expensive nor difficult.

Thus, quite like the EU, governments around the world need to use the twin strategy of push and pull to try to cut their e-waste generation. They need to push the manufacturers by making it mandatory for them to share information and spares for repair or even charge consumers a slight fee for the manufacturers themselves repairing their products. But the governments also need to pull the consumers towards the need to cut down dramatically and rapidly the amount of e-waste that each one is producing. This can be done through better awareness and of course a bit of cash has for long proven to be a good enough lubricant to get people to change their behaviour.

 

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