16 January, 2019

Phillip Ward considers how a circular economy needs goods which are designed to last longer and are capable of being fixed – and probably upgraded – when they go wrong or improvements become available. 

Last week I had one of my better twitter moments. I told the story of how my microwave oven had started sparking alarmingly and how my first reaction had been to think I would have to replace it. But then it occurred to me to check on Google[1] to see what the problem was and if it could be fixed. It turned out that the solution was straightforward and a spare part costing £2.50 was all I needed. Fixing the oven took ten minutes and it’s now working as normal.

A lot of people noticed and liked this story, no doubt helped by the news coverage that day of the EU “Right to Repair” proposals. But one Twitter account – @EEEsafe – did not. We had a brief exchange about whether I felt safe making the repair and they then posted a blog – not naming me – based on my story and stressing how dangerous it could have been for items like this to be repaired by people who are not qualified.

Initially I was very cross to be publicly rebuked. I have been repairing things for 60 years since I was taught how to wire a plug in the Cubs. Furthermore, I have a healthy understanding of the limits of my own competence and how far I can go without seeking professional help. The repair I made was so straightforward: the replacement of a small sheet of mica – requiring no specialist tools, that I had no safety concerns at all.

So I looked up @EEEsafe. Their website is remarkably uninformative, but it is clear that their object is to compile a register of people qualified to repair electrical items and offer training to those who would like to offer repair services to the public. By this time, I had calmed down enough to stop and think about the repair issue a bit more.

It is common ground that a circular economy needs goods which are designed to last longer and are capable of being fixed – and probably upgraded – when they go wrong or improvements become available. But as with recycling, it’s not enough to wish for the outcome without addressing the systems needed to make it achievable in practice, and those systems need to address the whole repair environment, including its economics, if they are going to work. You can’t get a current to flow around a circuit unless you close all the switches.

One of those switches is undoubtably the existence of a network of qualified repairers. There are different ways they can be organised: there could be larger national or regional repair centres, probably organised by manufacturers, or networks of individual practitioners operating fairly locally, of the sort @EEEsafe appear to be attempting to train and validate. These arrangements are “necessary but will not be sufficient”, which is where I have some concerns about the latest proposals from the EU. These are summarised in a helpful diagram from the European Environment Bureau.

Requiring designs which allow equipment to be taken apart and mandating the availability of spare parts are clearly good things and to be welcomed. However, the proposal to restrict the availability of spares and instruction manuals to “professional repairers” is problematic and ignores the underlying economics which have played a large part in getting us to the throw away culture we are trying to mend. The cost of new products has fallen dramatically in real terms on the back of economies of scale from global manufacturing and the benefits of a mixture of robotic and low wage assembly. Repair operations on the other hand are typically small scale, local and carried at first world labour rates. This is the origin of the perception that it can cost more to mend something than to buy a new one.

I bought an expensive radio with a built in CD player that, just outside its warranty period, swallowed, and refused to regurgitate, a Bruce Springsteen CD. The cost quoted for getting it fixed was more than the initial purchase price. Fortunately, internet streaming of music came along so I haven’t replaced the radio which will still play The Boss, and only The Boss, when I’m in the mood.

If we are going to overcome high repair costs, then the EU needs to think more economically. A mandatory 3-5year warranty period on new products would push up the initial purchase cost, which would both redress the balance between repair and replace, and incentivise manufacturers to design products to last longer and be easier and cheaper to repair.

To make the cultural change, however, I am pretty sure we also need to empower the citizen repairer. There is a tension between this and the development of a network of qualified repairers. People thinking of setting up in this business will want to know that they will not be undercut by the unqualified and unscrupulous. I guess that is in part the motivation of @EEEsafe and those who lobbied the EU about the new regulations. You can dismiss this as special interest pleading, but the tough argument here is about safety, both for those making repairs and for those using repaired items. Had I been tempted, in mending my microwave, to remove the outer casing, I would have opened myself up to risk from the discharge of a large internal capacitor – a 5,000 volt jolt which could have been very unpleasant if not lethal.

That is a legitimate concern but not an unanswerable one. In these days of Google and YouTube no-one needs to blunder blindly into these sorts of dangers. In the case of a microwave oven, videos I have looked at showed what special equipment was needed, what dangers were present and how to deal with them safely. It also showed how to check that the repair had been completed correctly. Armed with that information people can make their own judgement about whether they have the necessary equipment and confidence to attempt a repair and they will differ in their conclusions. One repairer on Radio 4 last week told the story of a man who brought something to him for repair which simply needed the batteries replacing! We all have our own thresholds.

Moving to a mend rather than throw culture is going to need an educational process. I think we would be missing a trick if we discourage individuals from making simple low-cost repairs themselves. To enable that we need to encourage good quality “how to” videos for the most common repair operations and ensure they have reliable safety advice built in including, where appropriate, “this needs to be done by a specialist”. A programme to create a quality-assured resource of this sort could be a valuable adjunct to the fantastic work done at Repair Cafes and other community-based activities.

In the end, the big changes will come from better design and getting the economics right so the cost of using short life components and making difficult to repair items sits with the manufacturers but until then I’m going to keep fixing what I can – safely.

[1] Actually I use ecosia.com as my search engine. It produces very similar results but uses its ad revenues to support tree planting. Give it a try.