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July 5, 2021updated 02 Jun 2022 11:43am

How the right to repair would cut emissions from ICT equipment

The EU is drafting 'right to repair' rules for ICT equipment and the UK is considering its options. Campaigners worry their measures won't go far enough.

By Pete Swabey

By extending the life of ICT equipment, ‘right to repair’ rules can drastically reduce its environmental impact, the majority of which occurs during manufacturing. New EU rules making it easier to fix smartphones and laptops are on their way, while the UK is mulling its options. But campaigners worry that incoming measures will not go far enough in removing the barriers to repair.

right to repair tech

The majority of emissions in the lifecycle of ICT equipment occur before it is used. (Photo by Golubovy / Shutterstock) 

What is the ‘right to repair’ and how can it reduce the environmental impact of ICT?

Sustainability is a top priority for organisations around the world: 43% of technology leaders surveyed by Tech Monitor earlier this year listed ‘sustainability/ESG’ among their employer’s top three strategic priorities for the coming year. Eighty-four per cent said they are supporting their organisation’s sustainability goals by improving the energy efficiency of IT infrastructure. “We’ve been doing sustainability certification of IT products for 30 years, and we have never felt a wave [of interest] like we’re feeling now,” says Clare Hobby, global director of purchaser engagement at certification provider TCO Development.

When it comes to computing equipment, the best way to reduce its environmental impact is to use it for longer. According to analysis by campaign group Restart, the majority of CO2 emissions produced in the lifecycle of ICT equipment occur before it is first used. This is because extracting materials such as lithium and graphite is highly carbon-intensive. Extending the life of each device – by repairing, not replacing them, when something breaks, for example – would substantially reduce the overall burden of computer manufacturing.

"Laptops can easily go for eight or nine years," says Hobby, but many organisations are in a cycle of replacing them every three or four years. And amid growing fears about data leakage, companies often shred their laptops after use. Maintaining these devices for longer would reduce IT's environmental burden

Currently, though, some manufacturers limit the extent to which their products can be fixed by third parties. Reasons given for these 'repair restrictions' include intellectual property protection, safety and cybersecurity. The majority of these reasons "are not supported by the record," according to an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission. Manufacturers also limit the repairs they offer customers to a minimum, says Restart founder and policy lead Ugo Vallauri.

EU 'right to repair' rules for ICT equipment are on their way

As part of its EcoDesign Directive to reduce the environmental impact of manufactured products, the European Union is bolstering its citizens' 'right to repair'. Earlier this year, new rules came into effect that force white goods manufacturers to make replacement parts available for repairs. Last week, these rules also came into effect in the UK.

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The European Commission is now working on equivalent rules for smartphones and tablets. Vallauri expects these to be agreed next year, then enacted one or two years after that. 'Right to repair' rules for laptops will follow after that. There has been some suggestion that this slow progress might reflect lobbying from device manufacturers. Vallauri says that while industry lobbyists have had some success in dampening the urgency of this effort, the timing mostly reflects the ponderous nature of the legislative process and a lack of resources allocated by the Commission.

A draft version of the EU's smartphone repair rules seen by Restart includes a requirement to make replacement parts, including screen assemblies and batteries, available to consumers as well as professional repairers. It also addresses 'software obsolescence', whereby manufacturers make devices prematurely unusable by discontinuing software and security updates. An investigation by UK consumer watchdog Which? found that one billion Android users globally are using unpatched handsets. The draft EU rules seen by Restart require updates for at least five years after a product has been retired, Vallauri says.

In the UK – which produced the second-highest amount of e-waste per capita in 2019 – Defra and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have completed a study of energy-using products. The study "seems to prioritise smartphones and laptops for further regulation," says Vallauri. But it remains to be seen whether the government will follow its recommendations, and whether it will choose to maintain regulatory harmony with the EU.

Will the right to repair rules for ICT be strong enough?

Despite this ostensible support for the 'right to repair', Vallauri does not believe these new measures go far enough. The new UK rules on white goods, he believes, fall far short of the ideal. While a statement from BEIS says that "manufacturers will be legally obliged to make spare parts for products available to consumers for the first time", this in fact only applies to a smaller number of parts, Vallauri says, and they can "make them available at a price point that is completely unrealistic for consumers".

The rules also allow manufacturers to bundle replacement parts together, Vallauri says. This is a significant factor that contributes to the cost of fixing computers, explains Hobby. "What's happening is many of the [manufacturers'] repair programmes are routinely replacing big components, instead of just the faulty component. You might have a small chip on a motherboard that would break down, and if [the manufacturer] goes to repair that, they'll often replace the entire motherboard together with the CPU and the RAM, instead of just replacing the faulty chip."

Restart has launched a petition calling on the UK government to match or exceed the EU's right to repair commitments, to reduce VAT on repairs, and to ensure spare parts are available to anyone who needs them. Although the group campaigns primarily on behalf of consumers and community initiatives, a more expansive right to repair for computing equipment would benefit businesses customers too, Vallauri argues. For one thing, it would bolster the independent repair sector, in turn, making device repair and refurbishment more affordable. "We believe independent repair businesses will be vital to the 'repairing economy'," he says. "So it's really important they can access all the spare parts and documents they need."

The 'right to repair' is likely to become an increasing concern for business buyers, says Hobby, as they not only take greater responsibility for the environmental impact of their IT supply chain, but also seek to mitigate the risks of supply chain disruptions such as the ongoing chip shortage. "We have to have the right to repair products in case of another supply chain blockage like we're experiencing now," she says.

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