Repair, not replace, is key to tackling e-waste
Authorities in the Thuringia region of Germany are offering residents up to €100 ($112) not to throw away their old smartphones but instead repair them and continue using them. A similar repair bonus is also offered for the prolonged use of other electronic consumer items, such as laptops, and even domestic appliances. The scheme is likely to be adopted soon in other parts of the country.
The incentives are part of a Europe-wide “right to repair” movement that has gained tremendous political and economic traction over the past few years. Two years ago, faced with sharp criticism over mounting heaps of waste due to large-scale consumption, the EU introduced comprehensive right-to-repair legislation that makes it mandatory for manufacturers to make it easier for consumers and maintenance businesses to repair and refurbish all electronic durables.
The law has been introduced across the entire EU; even Britain has retained it even though it is no longer a member following Brexit. In Germany, “repair cafes” have sprung up across the country, creating a vast network of professionals so that consumers do not have to hunt around to get their gadgets fixed.
One aspect of the right-to-repair law obliges manufacturers to ensure that spare parts are readily available, because a lack of easy access to spares is one of the main reasons for the mountains of electronic waste around the world.
Increasing the lifespan of products will go a long way toward dramatically reducing the numbers of them that end up in landfills each year. This benefits the environment in many ways: It reduces the amount of resources needed 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 tons in 2010 to 53.6 million tons in 2019, an increase of 70 percent in less than a decade. Small gadgets, mainly smartphones, video game consoles and laptops, account for a large amount of this waste, followed by large domestic appliances, and air conditioning and heating equipment.
The amount of electronic waste has been growing by about 5 percent a year. During the pandemic this figure can only have risen, given that many people spent much of the past two years locked inside their homes where they were forced to use the digital domain to conduct practically every daily activity, including education, work and even shopping.
Though sales of electronic goods slowed in most countries during the first two quarters of 2020, the early days of the pandemic, they have risen since then in most parts of the world and are now believed to be higher than pre-pandemic levels, even though the broader economy still lags at 2019 levels in many countries.
Another area in which the use of electronic gadgets has risen is related to health; digital thermometers and pulse oximeters became standard household accessories as people struggled to visit doctors for check-ups during the pandemic. Therefore one can reasonably expect an increase in the volume of such goods ending up in garbage dumps in the not-too-distant future.
Governments around the world need to use twin strategies of “push and pull” to try to reduce the generation of e-waste.
Ranvir S. Nayar
So far, the right-to-repair movement has gained traction and political capital in Europe, Canada and the US, partly because historically these areas have been leading per capita e-waste generators: About 20kg per person per year in North America and 16.1kg in Europe.
Although the figures in Asia and Africa are much lower, about 5.6kg per person, it is important that they quickly adopt similar laws mandating strict compliance with right-to-repair rules. There is no doubt that both of these regions historically have had a very strong, if informal, repair network, mainly due to the fact that buying new gadgets is still very expensive for many consumers there, and so there are ample numbers of professionals available that can fix a phone or a laptop for the fraction of the cost of replacement.
However, this trend has been changing recently for two main reasons. One is that as technology advances, many companies have made it more difficult for informal repair shops to get hold of the spare parts they need to repair gadgets. Also because of the frequency with which products are updated and new versions introduced, and the use of more patented components, it can take some time for the market to adapt to new technologies and overcome the barriers.
Another factor contributing to growing concerns about e-waste is the unfair practices adopted by many, if not most, manufacturers around the world who build lifespan limits, or planned obsolescence, into their products to force consumers to buy a new device rather than repair an old one.
One famous example of this was Apple’s practice of installing software on its phones that slowed them down over time to the point where the user would be forced to buy a newer model. Similar limitations have been imposed, immorally and even illegally, by manufacturers of a vast array of consumer goods.
But it is not only the actions of the manufacturers that are making e-waste a growing global headache. Consumers, too, bear a share of the responsibility. Many consumers in rich countries have for some time been more concerned with the feel-good factor and status of owning a brand new, state of the art gadget, rather than upgrading out of any real necessity to do so.
Now, similar behavior can increasingly be seen in developing economies as well, where increased disposable incomes, at least for some people, are encouraging consumers to buy new gadgets more out of desire than need. As a result, growing numbers of older gadgets are being junked rather than repaired, even when fixing them is neither expensive nor difficult.
As is happening in the EU, therefore, governments around the world need to use twin strategies of “push and pull” to try to reduce the generation of e-waste.
They need to push manufacturers by making it mandatory for them to share information about repairs and ensure spare parts are readily available, or even offer repairs themselves for a fair price.
But governments also need to pull the consumers toward an acceptance of the need to reduce, dramatically and rapidly, the amount of e-waste they are generating.
This can be done by raising awareness and, of course, by offering a modest amount of cash as a reward — which has for a long time proven itself to be an effective incentive to encourage people to change their behavior.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view