Reducing the 80 percent of e-waste dumped in landfills begins with extending device lifespans. To do so, the global economy must curtail the planned obsolescence of devices and expand consumers’ right to repair their electronics. The E.U., a leader in curbing e-waste, included both as priorities in its ‘A new Circular Economy Action Plan,’ unveiled last year.
Planned obsolescence is the intentionally shortened lifespan of electronics. In short, companies want to ensure that consumers will buy a new device when their current one begins to show signs of failure, increasing sales revenue. Companies accomplish this through the intentional design of their products, software updates that accelerate the aging process, and the constant release of new and superior devices.
Combatting planned obsolescence starts with sustainable design. Although sustainable design might be associated with energy-efficient production, clean energy usage, and the elimination of hazardous chemicals, it is also tied to product longevity. A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation names durability as one of the main actions industry can take to accelerate the transition toward a sustainable economy. In a 2016 publication, the EU notes that product durability is not an area that has received full attention and can play a role in “reducing the lifetime environmental impacts of products.”
Curtailing planned obsolescence will slow down the stream of disposed electronics, but there is another way of extending a product's lifespan, and that is the right to repair.
If you are browsing Netflix, you might stumble upon a charming British show called ‘The Repair Shop’ where restoration experts breathe new life into old furniture and family heirlooms. The treasures featured might not be an iPhone 6s, yet the show highlights the idea that damaged goods can have second lives. Enabling consumers and independent repair shops to fix impaired electronics is a highly touted concept in creating a circular economy. Last year the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan (linked above) prioritized the right to repair in a five-year blueprint, which calls for product repairability scores among other initiatives. EU member nations Sweden, France, and Austria, have also passed right to repair measures. Although, despite a burgeoning movement and international support, barriers remain.
Manufacturers and tech giants have impeded independent repair shops and consumers from working on their products by controlling who can repair them. The Repair Association, a non-profit that advocates for the right to repair, demands that when it comes to personal devices, “you should have the right to use it, modify it, and repair it whenever, wherever, and however you want.” More restrictive manufacturers would have the consequence of forcing consumers to seek out more expensive manufacturer-authorized repairs, thus driving small repair shops out of business.
Still, momentum is on the side of the repair economy. The Business Research Company expects the consumer electronics repair and maintenance market to grow 8.8 percent from 2020 ($15.11B) to 2021 ($16.44B), increasing by a 2.3 percent annual growth rate from 2015-2020. And with 20 U.S. states considering digital right-to-repair bills as of 2019 and national bipartisan support, America might follow in Europe’s footsteps.
Both the elimination of planned obsolescence and increased access to resources for independent repairs are tenants of a circular economy, and thus a more sustainable world. As populations grow, an insatiable demand for electronics will follow. If companies, governments, and consumers prioritize the economic and public health toll of e-waste over the take, make, and waste economy, then we can start to achieve the circularity necessary for a more sustainable world.