26-03-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, the EU announced the introduction of a new Right to Repair act with the UK following the same outline. How do modern manufacturing techniques contribute to e-waste, what do the new rules allow, and how will they reduce e-waste?
Recently, whenever I look around the house and put packaging into the bin, I often wonder about where it goes, how it was made, and how much resources are left on the planet. While I am certainly not an ecowarrior, I do value sustainability. Questions I ask myself include “how did we package things in the past?” and “how much value would this piece of packaging have 50 years ago?”.
These questions eventually lead to the topic of e-waste, and unlike many, I love e-waste. To be specific, there is nothing I love more than obtaining old electronics and either recycle them down into parts or giving them a new purpose. But while the local recycling centre does everything it can to stop me from pinching old computers no matter how much I try to bribe the workers (apparently you need a license for), many electronic systems cannot be repaired as spare parts can sometimes be impossible to obtain.
I remember seeing a really old machine with dual 5.25” floppy drives with a CRT, and no matter how much I begged, they wouldn’t let me have it. This was in 2020!
Online electronic marketplaces have almost any component you can think of, but it is truly amazing how manufacturers go out of their way to create products with parts that one cannot get. A common example includes Apple products that use chips with specific hardwired coding so that only Apple can supply the components which they do not sell to repairers.
Of course, it is not just advanced electronic devices such as computers and phones that are affected; everyday products such as fridges, hairdryers, and ovens often integrate parts that can only be obtained from the manufacturer who often refuses (directly or indirectly) to supply them.
The past never operated like this as electronics were expensive and bulky. If a radio or TV broke, a repairer would be called, and the unit would most likely be saved. Nowadays, if a product fails, it is discarded into a landfill. Sure, electronics are much cheaper now, but is it right that products can be thrown?
Throwing electronics into the landfill is not only wasteful. It can cause serious damage to the environment. Heavy metals and toxic compounds readily leak from electronic products that contaminate the ground and taint underground water sources.
Recognising the need to reduce e-waste, the EU introduces new regulations on the right to repair. The new regulations will see that manufacturers of key electronic items such as hairdryers, washing machines, and TVs provide customers with the ability to repair the devices and guarantee parts for a minimum of 10 years.
Furthermore, to keep the UK in line with EU regulation, the UK introduces near-identical regulations in summer. The new regulations also change the current classification systems for determining energy efficiency. As energy efficiency has increased, manufacturers have had to use additional + symbols, which is not entirely clear (such as A+++). Therefore, a new scale is being introduced, ranging from A to G, and it is expected that very few devices will fall into the A category.
While the regulations provide hope in reducing e-waste, manufacturers have the right only to sell spare products to authorised repair shops. This ensures that repairs are carried out correctly and ensure the safety of the repaired product. While most can change a light bulb, replacing a power converter unit in a dishwasher should be left to those who have a basic understanding of electronics and proper procedure on cable stripping and installation.
The current regulations mainly attack bulky household items such as dishwashers, TVs, and washing machines. This is most likely due to these devices' simplicity, and their electronics are often found on a single PCB. As such, these devices can be easily repaired and put back into service.
However, complex devices such as smartphones and laptops are highly integrated devices that can often utilise glued fittings instead of nuts and bolts. Furthermore, components that break on such electronics can often be complicated to repair (albeit not impossible). As such, they can provide an argument against repair work in favour of a new device.
But, such regulations could encourage designers of commercial electronics products to change how their devices fit together. Future electronics could potentially see a shift back to socketed designs for major components (such as RAM and CPU) and only using generic off-the-shelf parts. Another alternative path would be the increased use of FPGAs and other programmable hardware so that designs can be rolled back, updated, and fixed should they start to fail.