The new ‘right to repair’ legislation that comes in this spring will require manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and displays – including TVs - to make spare parts available for up to ten years, allowing professional repairers to reduce the number of products that get prematurely scrapped. Similar regulations for computer servers and welding equipment took effect earlier in the year.
Whilst this is a very positive move that will help reduce the estimated 1.5 million tonnes of electrical waste generated by the UK every year, it doesn’t go far enough for many campaigners. For example, it would be good to include phones and laptops in the legislation, and to allow more people to repair their own equipment, rather than have to rely on professional repairers.
France is somewhat ahead of the curve in this regard and is introducing ‘repairability scores’ for new products to show how easy it is to fix a broken or damaged device. Apple has already complied with the legislation and shows the scores on its French website.
The challenge for product design is clear. Repairability should be a fundamental part of any design brief, along with minimum cost, ease of use and safety. This clearly has implications for economics and margins, particularly in markets where high volume products are snapped or bonded together with no expectation that they will ever be dismantled. Finding low cost but reversible assembly methods is just another challenge for product designers and needs to become a central part of what we do.
There are plenty of positive examples already in the market. Brompton Cycles supplies spares for even their earliest products. Similarly, the famous Henry vacuum cleaner is designed for dismantling and repair, and there are many online videos that show how to strip down and rebuild them. Even the clothing industry – which is responsible for huge amounts of waste and pollution – is getting more involved in repair and re-use. Companies like Finisterre offer repair facilities for their clothing to prevent them ending up in landfill before their time and minimise the environmental impact of their production.
Where original replacement parts are no longer available, there is a genuine role for 3D printing. The ability to download and print off replacement components is already a reality for simple parts, and this has been demonstrated on the International Space Station. As these technologies become more capable, the ability to print off complex parts will enable products to be repaired more easily and, critically, more economically. This possibility raises the issue of ‘part libraries’ that can be downloaded and printed off, which is causing major concerns within the IP industry.
Maybe the way forward is to have a network of licenced repair shops, with access to approved part data and supplies that can add some life to our beleaguered high streets and offer consumers the chance to save money as well as limiting waste. Repair Cafes already offer a similar service, and the movement is growing. These excellent volunteer-based initiatives are helping to change attitudes to product repair and – together with positive legislation – may pave the way to the much-needed changes we need to our approach to waste and pollution.