A washing machine is not forever, there’s little doubt about this. But, if buying an appliance used to be a long-term investment, nowadays this is no longer true. Whether obsolescence is planned, induced by the psychology of the market or made inevitable by the advancement of technology, the use-life of products – especially electric and electronic ones – keeps getting shorter.

This is also caused by difficulties in repairing these products. Technicians are expensive, spare parts disappear from the market after a while, and the items themselves are often difficult to dismantle or made in a way that makes disassembly impossible. Repairmen, called in to mend air-conditioners, dishwashers or PCs, more often than not just end up saying: “It’s better to throw it away and get a new one.”

Meanwhile, electronic waste keeps piling up, and threatens to become the next major environmental crisis: according to estimates by the UN’s Global E-Waste Monitor, in 2018, in just one year, 48.5 million tonnes were produced. That is one thousand times the weight of the Titanic, or 4,500 Eiffel Towers of potentially toxic and dangerous materials.

Evidently, this “throwaway” culture is no longer sustainable. And the motion for the right to reparability, advanced by a consortium of associations and NGOs, was put to the European Commission, and finally made its official entry into the Ecodesign Directive. After all, it all starts with design: “80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined at the design stage,” states the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO network.

Energy Efficiency or Durability?

The Ecodesign Directive and its updates have, until now, been primarily focused on eco-compatible design from the perspective of energy-saving, or, at best, water-saving. The addition of the circular economy package, however, has now expanded the focus to the entire life cycle of products, prioritising aspects such as recyclability, re-use and use-life of goods.

Even so, it is often the case that prolonging a product’s life and making it more energy-efficient are conflicting objectives. The ideal option for consumers’ finances would obviously be longer lasting products, but these have not always coincided with eco-friendliness. This idea is addressed by a report compiled in 2018 by the Öko-Institut in Fribourg: “For a long time, the energy-saving message was that consumers should buy a new and more energy-efficient appliance once their existing product had been in service for a few years. For types of product whose efficiency improved rapidly over a short time period, this undoubtedly made sense. However, the energy efficiency of a wide range of appliances has improved substantially in recent years, mainly as a result of the EU’s Energy Labelling and Ecodesign Directives. Consumers who already own an energy-efficient appliance should therefore keep it in service for as long as possible in order to minimise its environmental impact.”

The best decision in environmental terms – between repair and replacement – is of course dependent on the type of product. The Öko-Institut has compiled a list of electrical appliances and electronic devices that should be used for as long as possible: computers, laptops, smartphones, washing machines, dryers with high-efficiency heat pumps, and other appliances like fridges, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers that already have A-class energy ratings (even B-class for vacuum cleaners). Nevertheless, “numerous studies on products such as notebooks and washing machines show that a long-lasting appliance is generally more eco-friendly – despite advances in energy efficiency. Notebooks are an example: in a study for the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), the Öko-Institut calculated that even if the new notebook uses around 10 per cent less energy than the old one, it would have to remain in service for around 80 years in order to compensate for the energy consumed in its manufacture. From an environmental perspective, it also makes sense to keep other electronic devices, such as TVs and smartphones, in service for as long as possible.”

The Pillars of Reparability: Disassembly and Spare Parts

Once the ideal trade-off between efficiency and lifespan has been established, the question then becomes: how can product use-life be prolonged?
To address this, the package of amendments to the Ecodesign Directive added between December 2018 and January 2019 contains a series of measures that aim to increase the reparability of energy-related appliances, such as washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, fridges, computer and TV screens, and lighting. There are three essential focus areas: design oriented to longer use-life (including modularity and the possibility of upgrading); availability of spare parts; and easier access to information regarding maintenance and upgrading.
To begin with, the Directive asks to make it easier to dismantle products, for example by not welding or gluing parts together. The request has been largely agreed upon, with important exceptions for washing machines and dishwashers.

Another key issue is the availability of spare parts. For the first time, it has been established that parts must be made available for at least 7 years after a model is put on the market, with the prescription extending to 10 years in some cases. Not an insignificant endeavour for manufacturers, who have until March 2021 – when the new regulations come into effect – to adjust their production. “The timings are quite challenging,” comments Paolo Falcioni, Director General of APPLiA Europe, the international association that unites European manufacturers and distributors of domestic appliances. “However, the text published by the European Commission is well-balanced in accounting for the different forces at play, and manufacturers are undoubtedly in favour of transparency and the definition of minimal requisites in terms of availability of spare parts. There will obviously be some increase in expenditure for companies, but the legislation will require this effort of every manufacturer, even non-European ones who sell on the common market. This will guarantee market-wide uniformity, without disparities.”

The world of civil society also appears to be satisfied, but with some reservations. “It’s an important first step, – comments Stephane Arditi, responsible for the EEB’s circular economy policies – for the first time there are clear and practical rules for product reparability: an excellent precedent for future targets. Although the availability period for spare parts is still quite limited, thus penalising appliances that could last even longer with repairs.”
“Another criticism – Arditi goes on – can be made regarding ‘coupled’ parts. Some spare parts that always go together within appliances can now be sold both together or separately, but others will continue to only be sold together. This, aside from wasting material, only increases repair costs. This is a decisive factor, because if reparability is to become a widespread option, it should be as convenient as possible.”

Who Repairs What? Who Decides?

The truly contentious topic, however, is “who.” Who has the right, the qualifications and the ability to repair?
It is crucial to establish this, because it means deciding to whom companies must give maintenance information and technical files regarding their electronic components. Without this, repairs become an impossible undertaking, or at least a very arduous one.

“What the NGO consortium was asking for – recounts Davide Sabbadini of Legambiente – is transparency for the files needed for electronic diagnostics. The ideal situation for us would be for these to be open and downloadable online, easy to consult for all users. This way, not only professional repairmen, but also associations and eco-centres could perform repairs and eventually resell products, supplying a poorer part of the market and optimising the use-life of products as much as possible.”

However, information is power, and no one wants to provide it freely. The Commission’s work therefore involved a delicate balancing act between the demands of manufacturers and those of organisations and consumers. Robert Juki, Sector Head for Energy Efficiency of Products at the European Commission, explains: “In the revised ecodesign regulations, Member States have agreed to introduce two spare parts lists; one for professional repairers only, and one for end-users and professional repairers. Whilst everyone will have access to the spare parts of the second list, spare parts and repair information related to the spare parts on the first list is limited to professional repairers only. We believe that these requirements will also stimulate Member States to set up appropriate registration systems for repair organisations.”

“Balanced legislation –comments Paolo Falcioni – that successfully accounts for security and the right to repair. The technical information will be provided to those who can demonstrate that they are able to work on a washing machine or dishwasher without jeopardising consumer safety or their own. The law doesn’t exclude anyone, it only establishes necessary criteria for safe repairs. It also takes into account simpler repairs that consumers themselves can perform without risks, such as changing a refrigerator’s seal. For these cases, some producers already offer a quick repair kit that makes repairs easier.”

NGOs, on the other hand, are less satisfied. “We know that, on paper, the legislation is not discriminatory, but for small repairmen or ‘repair cafés’ it can be prohibitively expensive to gain the required accreditation,” notes Stephane Arditi. “There is also the risk that large companies will exercise excessive control over access to authorisations to repair their devices and appliances.” He is also doubtful about the question of safety: “It is impossible to know whether consumers will try to open up and repair an appliance by themselves. At this point, to reduce risks, it would be better if information were available to everyone.”

An Eye on the Future

Criticism and dissatisfaction aside, the revisions to the Ecodesign Directive will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the environment and energy saving in Europe. “Based on our estimate, the total savings are expected to be around 130 TWh per year in 2030, which is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of Ireland.”
What is still missing is a labelling system that makes consumers immediately aware of a product’s degree of reparability. “But we are working on it,” assures Arditi. “The Joint Research Centre, which works alongside the Commission, is carrying out various studies to help establish a Repair Scoring System. This could result in a label, similar to the energy-efficiency one, with different ratings determining the degree of reparability. Such an instrument would be really effective in finally transforming the market.”

Meanwhile, the focus is now shifted outside of Europe, considering that the legislation crafted in Brussels is a unique historical precedent on a global scale. “North America began campaigns for reparability before us – Arditi explains – but the USA’s approach is different, for them it is more a battle on the principles of the issue, rather than a debate on technical details.” European pragmatism could therefore lead by example in a revolutionary change to market models. “The ideal situation would be to join forces, combining the practical experience in North America, the legal precedents in Europe and other more interesting approaches from Asian countries like China, Korea and Taiwan, thus creating a global market of reparable products. Once we reach this level, a critical mass for creating real business opportunities for longer lasting and more sustainable products will have been achieved.” And the e-waste generation’s mad rush will come to an end.

OekoInstitut www.oeko.de/en
Eeb – European Environmental Bureau https://eeb.org
Home Appliance Europe www.applia-europe.eu
Repair Scoring System http://susproc.jrc.ec.europa.eu/ScoringSystemOn Reparability/index.html