Increase in E-Waste Production and Disposal Problems
In a context of unbridled consumerism, in which the quantity of products that are bought and replaced shortly afterwards continues to grow, the amount of waste, unfortunately, also increases exponentially. Consumer purchasing habits, extremely harmful to the environment, are aligned with a specific strategy of manufacturers: planned obsolescence. In essence, decreasing a product’s life cycle duration, that is, the time period from the moment that the product arrives on the market until its elimination, ensures a greater amount of sales. These concepts will be clarified later on.
In recent years, it has become increasingly evident that in addition to the serious issue of plastic, which requires long disposal times, another major threat to the environment is pollution that comes from technological waste and household appliances. This category of waste is called “waste of electrical and electronic equipment,” or WEEE, and represents a serious problem for the environment due to the difficulty of disposal and the toxic substances they can release.
The first set of problems is related to the excessive “consumption” of these products. In fact, it often happens that perfectly functional appliances, overtaken by a new generation, or products that are almost completely functional and could be easily repaired are discarded. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, WEEE reached a quantity of 53.6 million tons, growing 21% in the last five years, corresponding to a per capita production of 7.3 kg of electronic waste.
A second set of problems is related to disposal. This type of waste, if not properly treated, releases highly toxic substances into the soil, air or water. The ever-increasing diffusion of technological products increases the possibility of abandoning them in the environment, landfills or waste-to-energy plants, which neither allow for the recovery of some components or materials, nor their correct elimination. Once again, the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 reports that only 17.4% of WEEE follows the planned management and disposal process, while the remainder ends up in the environment and landfills.
In Italy, however, in 2019 there was positive data regarding the management of e-waste. EcoDom, the Italian Consortium for the Recovery and Recycling of Household Appliances, managed 122,330 tons of WEEE, a quantity comparable to 156 8-carriage Freccia Rossa trains (ANSA), which corresponds to about 16% more than in 2018. According to Giorgio Arienti, director general of EcoDom: “The results obtained are proof of a continuous commitment to environmental protection and the health of citizens. And they are even more important if we consider that the WEEE sector is weakened by legislative shortcomings and a lack of adequate controls along the supply chain.”
Another Solution for WEEE: Repair
A second solution to reduce e-waste production is promoting the repairability of electronic objects, trying to lengthen their life cycle and decrease their continuous replacement. This solution also raises various problems at the legislative level, an area in which Europe is starting to take concrete steps. It should also be kept in mind that Europe ranks first with a per capita production of 16.2 kg, more than double the world average (7.3 kg) mentioned above.
To address this imbalance, last November, the European Parliament voted in favor of consumers’ right to redress. Brussels’ goal is to develop and introduce a mandatory labeling system that informs the consumer in a clear and simple way about the degree of product repairability. David Cormad, the French EMP, said: “With this vote, the European Parliament has sent a clear message: the path to follow is a mandatory introduction of harmonized labels indicating durability and the fight against premature obsolescence at the EU level.
This decision is the culmination of a path that the European Union had already started a few years before with the adoption of Ecodesign standards, including the recognition of minimum repairability requirements for household appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, monitors), another important step in the fight against waste reduction.
Also of interest is a survey conducted by the European Union which found that 77% of European citizens would prefer to repair their devices rather than buy new ones, while 79% think that manufacturers should be legally obliged to facilitate the repair of digital devices or the replacement of individual parts. Not all legislative difficulties have yet been overcome, but this survey remains an important signal that indicates the growing responsibility of European citizens regarding environmental issues and the excessive production of e-waste.
Right to Repair
The European campaign that led to the European Parliament vote takes the name “Right to Repair” and includes more than 30 organizations across 12 European countries. The slogan is very simple, but extremely significant: “We believe products should last longer, and therefore when broken, they should be repaired. This requires products to be designed for repair as well as support for repairers of all kinds.” There are two directions: on the consumer’s part the right to repair must be consolidated, while on the repairer’s part greater support (economic and legislative) is required.
As far as the product life cycle is concerned, the movement fights not only to obtain the right to repair, but also decreases the anticipated obsolescence of producers. By anticipated or planned obsolescence we mean that strategy which defines the life cycle of a product in order to limit its duration of use, make it obsolete and force the consumer to buy a new model, designed in the same way. It is clear how this type of design policy favors the manufacturers of household appliances and electronic devices, but it is also the main cause of the significant increase in e-waste. A strong contrast is therefore emerging between companies and Right to Repair supporters.
The program that the repairers movement has developed around includes three fundamental points:
- Good design. Products should be designed not only for their performance but also to last for a long time and to be repaired. To increase the repairability index of the objects, it is necessary to change the design and production practices of the devices: parts must be easily removable and upgradeable. Manufacturers must avoid assembling products with heat-sealed components due to their making the process to replace defective parts complex. (Coolproducts)
- Equal access to repairs. Repairs should be economically convenient and above all they should not cost more than the new product, as it often happens. Furthermore, no type of legal barrier should stand in the way of repairers whether they are self-employed or organized into groups. The goal of this point is to achieve a universal right in practical terms of easily repairable products and in-depth manuals to facilitate operations.
- Consumer conscious. Citizens want to know if the items they buy are destined to have a long life (with the possibility of being repaired) or if they are meant to be thrown away once they break. This type of information must be available at the time of purchase (and it is precisely in favor of this point that the European Parliament has positively expressed itself).
iFixit moves in the same direction by offering almost 70,000 free repair manuals on its website and many hundreds of thousands of solutions to use them, as well as countless “almost free” kits for self-repairing. Despite some contradictions between the programmatic approach and the sale of objects that could easily become waste, iFixit is still a useful tool for the repair community.
Connected to the right to repair movement are the initiatives of the Restart Project, a community of repairers that was formed in London in 2012 and the spread to the rest of Europe. Restart Parties are free events in which some experts teach participants how to fix or give new life to technology products. Italy is the most active country, with frequent Restart Parties taking place between Milan, Turin and Florence.
The mission of the Restart Project has also moved to schools, where with a 10-week program the children learn some repair techniques and the fundamental notions of product design. The goal of these lessons, held by educators and teachers with the support of the project’s volunteers, is to raise awareness among children about the positive impact of repairs and arouse interest in a strategic issue during their education and development.
cover image credit: The Met (Object: 20338 / Accession: 2018.294.32)