The typical lifespan of products today seem to only be a few years. From mobile phones, to dishwashers, to equipment; you buy a product, use it for a few years, and then it breaks. Leaving you with only one or two, usually costly, options. In fact, it is almost always easier and cheaper to replace the product with a new one, instead of simply repairing it. This has become the standard.
Companies manufacturing products that break down after only a few years have become commonplace in the linear economy. They figured out that they can make the most money when consumers are forced to constantly buy the newer, “better'' version of the product they bought just a few years ago.
Even if consumers want to extend the lifespan of said product, they are faced with multiple roadblocks that prevent this from happening. Companies, such as Apple, have utilized different techniques to make repairs more difficult for consumers. Such as discontinuing the parts needed to do repairs on “older” products, limiting repairs to “authorized technicians” and not providing repair manuals.
In many cases, it is more expensive to repair a broken product than to replace it. And most people do not have the knowledge on how to make at-home repairs. So we toss out the old product and buy a new one; and continue to buy new every few years, because there are very few alternative options.
This is the focus of the Right to Repair Movement. To, “require companies to make their parts, tools and information available to consumers and repair shops in order to keep devices from ending up in the scrap heap.” Advocates argue that the current rules restrict people’s use of their own devices and encourage a throwaway culture by making repairs too difficult. If you own something, you should have the right to repair it yourself, or at least take it to a technician of your choice.
Supporters of the movement also cite a culture of planned obsolescence — the idea that products are designed to be short-lived in order to encourage people to buy more stuff. This constant throwing away and replacing of products contributes to an abundance of waste, misspent natural resources and high energy usage. In turn, impacting climate change and global warming.
The idea of planned obsolescence is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it was written about in 1928 by Justus George Frederick, an American advertising expert who suggested that people would have to buy an ever-increasing variety of things, then discard them and purchase new things, in order to help keep the consumer economy running (Paola Rosa-Aquino, 2020). Since at least the early 1960s, critics have complained that planned obsolescence wastes people’s money, uses valuable resources and chokes landfills. In 2022, the planned obsolescence and disposability of products have become embedded into our culture with very few options for those looking for alternatives.
Whether it's the extraction of resources, carbon emissions or contribution to landfills — the constant manufacturing and waste of products has large impacts on the planet. The electricity generated from burning fossil fuels constitutes the largest environmental impact for most products. As explained in the New York Times, “Mining and manufacturing materials for the newest iPhone, for example, represents roughly 83 percent of its contribution to the heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere throughout its life cycle, according to Apple’s manufacturing data. For a washing machine, it’s about 57 percent.”
In a 2018 study, two professors at McMaster University in Hamilton looked at the carbon footprint of the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) industry. Which includes computers, phones and laptops; telecommunications structures, such as satellite dishes and routers; and data centres. Professor Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi found that ICT is responsible for about 1.5 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. The study also suggested that by 2040, ICT's carbon emissions could account for as much as 14 per cent. For comparison, at the time of the study, the energy sector accounted for roughly 27 per cent, while agriculture, forestry and other land use made up 25 per cent.
Smartphones are the worst contributors to tech’s carbon footprint. Not only do we generally use our phones a lot more, but they require almost 10 times as much precious metals as a laptop or desktop computer. And with the planned obsolescence and the abundance of new models coming out, there is a constant flow of e-waste entering our planet.
In 2016, the Global E-Waste Monitor, a UN report measuring the amount of e-waste generated around the world, noted that 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated (CBC Radio, 2018). Which was up eight per cent from the group's previous report in 2014. In 2019, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide, up 21 per cent in just five years.
There are e-waste recycling programs, but similar to other recycling industries, they often fall short. Additionally, it is important to note that 90 to 98 percent of waste occurs before consumers purchase a device, and instead occurs during production.
In Canada, the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA) helps organize e-waste collection programs across the country. But as explained by Josh Lepawsky, a geography professor at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L:
“Electronics waste recycling is an industrial recycling process. That means using large industrial machinery to sort it into different categories, and eventually to destroy it by shredding it into its materials, and then a process of sorting it into finer and finer categories of different metals, plastics, glass, copper or aluminum, [which] would be baled up and sold on the world market for materials to go back into production” (CBC Radio, 2018).
Like all recycling, it can be necessary and useful when done correctly. But as it stands, it is not a perfect system. As Lepawsky further states, “[T]he reality of industrial recycling is that it's a highly energy-intensive process and in some ways adds to the overall energy footprint of our devices.” The fact is, we need to focus more on reuse and reduce, not just recycling. To do so, we need to extend the lifespan of products and see a dramatic drop in the amount of waste we are producing.
So what’s the problem?
Manufacturers and corporations argue that they are protecting the consumer’s safety by limiting who can do repairs. Although, the Right to Repair movement has solutions to these worries. Parts that are simple and safe should be available to consumers. Things like door hinges on your washing machine or replacement baskets and trays for your fridge-freezers, along with official manuals on how to safely make these repairs at home, should be the standard for products. For more difficult repairs, spare parts and information should be widely available to trained professionals. Again Apple comes to mind. As they have been criticized for only allowing repairs by authorized technicians at “select service centres”, requiring specific tools or authorized parts and making it extremely expensive to do repairs.
Additionally, as the law currently has it, the Right to Repair infringes upon the intellectual property of the manufacturers, covered under the Copyright Act in Canada. This both limits the possibility of at-home repairs, as well as third-party repairs, even by trained professionals. John Deer’s tractors are one example of this. They argue that the computer code that drives the device remains the property of the manufacturer, not the consumer and utilize license agreements with farmers that forbid them from even looking at the software running the tractor. Violating it could be considered breach of contract, which comes with the risk of a lawsuit (Harshit Rakheja, 2022).
Others warn that this could become a big issue. Bryan May, a Liberal MP who recently introduced a Private Member Bill to Parliament on the Copyright Act explained that, “The challenge is only going to get more and more significant. Right now we have things like smart TVs, and obviously cell phones, computer devices where this is a problem.” Continuing, “Everything that we own, everything from a toaster to our thermostat, is going to not be a ‘dumb device,’ but a smart device, and will all of a sudden, be covered under the Copyright Act.”
Where are we at in Canada?
Canada is yet to catch on to the Right to Repair Movement.
The United Kingdom has introduced right-to-repair rules that legally require manufacturers to make spare parts available to people buying electrical appliances. Consumers will have access to spare parts that they can repair on their own, while more complicated parts will be available in professional repair shops. The goal of this rule is to extend the lifespan of products by up to ten years, therefore benefiting the environment in terms of carbon emissions and e-waste. Similarly, in March 2021, the first ever right to repair laws came into effect in the European Union. As a result of the new laws, manufacturers in Europe will now be legally obligated to ensure that electric and electronic goods, such as televisions and fridges, can be repaired for up to 10 years.
In the United States, most of the 50 states proposed a Right to Repair Bill in 2021, but only Massachusetts passed it. The legislation requires vehicle manufacturers to provide diagnostic and repair information to owners and independent repair facilities for any car made in 2015 or later. It is important to note that the Right to Repair Movement does not just focus on electronics, but also items such as cars, medical equipment and agriculture-related equipment. Each state, and each country, has their own focuses on what is important within the movement.
In July 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden called on the Federal Trade Commission to curb restrictions imposed by manufacturers that limit consumers’ ability to repair their gadgets on their own terms.
In Canada, most legislation on the Right to Repair has failed. Bill 72, the Consumer Protection Amendment Act (Right to Repair Electronic Products), 2019 is one example. The Bill aimed to force brands to:
• “Provide consumers or electronics repair shops with replacement parts, software and tools for diagnosing, maintaining or repairing their products, for a fair price;
• Provide electronic documents such as repair manuals for free;
• Reset any electronic security that may disable the device during diagnosis, maintenance or repair” (Chung, 2019).
Ontario Parliament voted against Bill 72 in 2019.
More recently, Liberal MP Bryan May introduced the Private Member Bill C-272, An Act to Amend the Copyright Act (diagnosis, maintenance and repair). The Bill would update the Copyright Act to prohibit the use of technological protection measures and penalties, or digital locks, to block the repair of devices. May stated that if his bill is passed, it would be up to the provinces to mandate companies to provide better manuals and diagnostic tools to repair the product. That would cover anything with computer capability to be fixed from smart phones, gaming consoles, appliances, vehicles, and tractors.
The Bill passed at the second reading of the House of Commons. But with the snap election held in September 2021, further discussions have been delayed.
Bill C-272 is not without its own pitfalls. Allen Mendelsohn, a sessional lecturer at McGill University’s law faculty who specializes in internet and tech law, said that the bill takes a “minimalist” approach, removing copyright liability for those who want to repair their devices. He further states that, “It’s not a true right-to-repair.”
Conclusion: What’s next?
It is time for Canada to start making real changes to the status quo. The linear economy and take-make-waste systems we have created continue to wreak havoc on the environment in many different ways.
The Right to Repair is just one factor in the cultural shift that needs to happen.
Extending the life of a product, even briefly, can have significant benefits. According to Nathan Proctor, who leads the right-to-repair campaign for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, if Americans would extend the life of their cellphones by one year, for instance, it would be the climate-saving equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road, or about the amount of passenger vehicles registered in the state of New Mexico (Paola Rosa-Aquino, 2020). But to do so, we need legislation that supports this right for the consumer.
We need action from our Governments that put value on the environment over profit. And options that allow for sustainability and degrowth that go beyond recycling. Once we ensure the right for the consumer to repair their products in a reasonable way, we can increase the lifespan of products and limit the amount of avoidable waste, carbon emissions and the extraction of resources. This is the goal of the Right to Repair Movement.
As Ugo Vallauri, one of the founders of The Restart Project, puts it: “The best way to have a proactive role in preventing unnecessary waste, and reducing the impact that we have on the environment with our electronics, is really to make sure that we can use as long as possible all the gadgets that we already have in our pockets” (CBC Radio, 2018).
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This could be a huge opportunity for Canada. Like many environmental issues, the Right to Repair will require action and cooperation from Provincial and Federal Leaders. In the face of growing climate concerns, we are looking for Political Leaders to step up on this issue. If you are interested in getting involved, please reach out to us: firstname.lastname@example.org.