View from Brussels: The repairman cometh

The EU will soon grant people a ‘right to repair’ in what should be a big boost to sustainability and consumer satisfaction. It might also mean that electronic devices last much longer than their current typical lifespan.

According to polls carried out by the EU’s statistics office, 77 per cent of European citizens would rather repair their devices than buy new ones, while 79 per cent think that manufacturers should be legally obligated to make that practice more straightforward.

Last week, both those wishes became more likely.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s tech tsar, confirmed that the European Commission will next year publish its plan to offer citizens a ‘right to repair’ and that groups interested in the issue should now get in touch to help her staff draft the proposal.

“As for anything in the tech market, users shouldn't be locked in with one supplier. We should be free to choose which device we buy, the data we share, the apps we use and where we go when we need something to be fixed,” the European commissioner said.

Vestager used washing machines as an example of an appliance that consumers buy with its operating lifespan firmly in mind: “I don’t buy it for the machine itself, rather for the number of washes I will get from it.”

Washing machines are covered by new eco-design rules that came into effect earlier this year, which aim to reduce energy consumption during both the manufacturing and use stage of the appliance.

Other products covered include refrigerators, dishwashers and display screens. The laws say that spare parts and repair documentation must be made available to third parties and that replacement components need to be guaranteed for at least seven years.

Similar right-to-repair rules were implemented by the UK at the same time, as the government was bound by the terms of the Brexit agreement to stick with any laws to which it had already signed up. There is no guarantee that Westminster will mirror Brussels this time, though.

The eco-design scheme was hailed by consumer groups as a great step forward, but there are several limitations. It does not cover ubiquitous electronic devices such as laptops and smartphones and only new products will be included in manufacturer obligations.

Next year’s Commission proposal might change all that, depending on which products it decides to include in the legislation and what finer details make it into the final law, which both the European Parliament and national governments must approve.

MEPs voted last year in favour of a resolution that says that repairs need to be “more appealing, systematic and cost-efficient” and that extended guarantees, better access to repair information, and replacement parts guarantees are the way to do that.

Lawmakers also agreed that the Commission must address the secondhand market when it publishes its draft rules and that any manufacturer practices that deliberately shorten the lifespan of a product must be tackled.

“We need a comprehensive set of rules that facilitates clear and simple decisions in place of technical amendments that lack political courage and which confuse both consumers and businesses,” said David Cormand, a Greens MEP that penned the Parliament’s resolution.

The Commission will likely have to contend with powerful lobbying from big tech firms that will not be pleased with the prospect of having to change the way they make their products. The idea of devices lasting much longer will also obviously not be popular.

However, the EU has shown recently that it is prepared to stand up to companies like Apple and Google, either by fining them record amounts for data transgressions or pushing ahead with plans to make a single universal charger a requirement for devices.

The pressures of making the Green Deal work will also play a big role. E-waste is growing (in December 2020, a UN report revealed the UK is Europe's second-highest offender for producing e-waste) and the EU is keen to reduce its dependence on raw material imports, meaning that recycling is featuring heavily in its policymaking.

If the proposed rules are ambitious and get the green light, there may be fewer trips to the shop and more to the toolbox in the very near future.

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