Renewable Matter # 26 / March-April

Repairing the Economy

by Gay Gordon-Byrne

I am the bearer of uncomfortable news. Recycling is not the key to a circular economy – the key is repair. Diagrams showing a clean circle, where recycled goods turn into fresh products, ignore the ugly truth that recycling of electronics is not part of the circle. While it is true that manufacturers buy some raw materials from recycled sources, they don’t harvest used parts and install them in new products. All the labour that went into making these salvageable components is wasted.

Here is why: Manufacturers in general do not design products to be reused, repaired, or culled for valuable parts at their end of life. This isn’t nefarious – it is the result of decades of business models focused on selling new products in a highly competitive market. 

Manufacturers and their executives are rewarded for new sales both in terms of profits and increases in stock value. They don’t earn any additional money when you fix your own stuff. In fact – every item repaired is one less sold. Apple admitted to this problem in their latest guidance to investors – and promptly lost stock value. Repair is not a good thing for manufacturers. 

Nor are electronic products designed to be easy to disassemble, repair or reuse. Manufacturers plan for in-warranty repair parts, but not beyond.  

This creates enormous challenges in closing the circle. Parts are not consistent from one model to the next and often vary within a model run. In fact, recyclers receive a bewildering variety of products in random order. Just sorting and identifying which products or parts are valuable and which are not is labour intensive. Locating schematic diagrams to find specific parts or hazards to remove is labour intensive. It takes labour to disassemble and remove parts for reuse and resale. It is no surprise that recovery rates of electronic parts and products hovers at around 14% of even the most carefully curated streams. 

Then there is the problem of raw material value. The most valuable parts of most consumer products are often the metal and plastic housings, which are easily separated and sold as raw materials. Screws have value but not circuit boards. Boards require specialty smelting to recover the tiny bits of precious metals and the rest of the board is still landfilled. In fact, truckers end up making more money hauling the stuff around than most municipalities recover in value from recovered parts. 

On top of these challenges, manufacturers have actively thwarted consumers from repairing and continuing to use their purchased products. They make products that are designed to fail. They include batteries which have a finite life – then use glue to secure the battery making it impossible to replace. Many companies refuse to provide the documentation, parts and tools to make repairs practical. Some even push damaging software updates to degrade performance in sync with new product releases. 

Incentivising repair has enormous untapped potential to restore the vision of the circle. Consumers want to keep using the things they buy because they like them. It is our experience that almost everyone shops for repair first, and only buys replacements when repairs are impractical. Repair is the activity that supports extended use and particularly the value of used equipment. The cost of repair is critical to retaining equipment value. 

If repairs are widely available, then there is a market for parts to be harvested for resale by re-users, repair techs and recyclers. Repair businesses will respond rapidly to the opportunity to grow, creating more demand for harvested parts. In turn, this reduces the volume of scrap that needs processing whilst simultaneously extending the use life of our possessions. 

 

 

The Repair Association, https://repair.org

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