Recycling is front and centre of people’s minds, but what about other tactics further up the waste hierarchy? Maya de Souza, Circularity lab, explains why the time may have come for a revolution in repair, refurbishment and reuse.
The right to repair is becoming a hot topic, especially with the cost of everyday living on the rise. As Camilla Cavendish wrote recently in the Financial Times: “Appliances used to be labour-saving devices. Now we have to coax and cosset them to function.”
We’ve all had experiences of this sort. My laser printer, for example, with which my tech-savvy partner and I are completely exasperated. I’m ready for a new one, but I baulk at forking out another £300. Then there was a recent reupholstering of an old armchair: that cost £500, including £100 of VAT.
With all this in mind, I’ve looked at Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) long-awaited waste prevention programme, nicely titled Maximising Resources, Minimising Waste. It follows on from the resources and waste strategy and a commitment to eliminate avoidable waste by 2050.
In practice, this means keeping products in use for longer: repairing them and upgrading them, as well as recycling them. It’s not all about saving money; reducing the rate at which we generate waste also reduces carbon emissions. A double win.
Such an approach also helps address resource scarcity, particularly of rare earth metals used in electronic goods. The quantities are high: Defra estimates that 23.99kg of electrical waste per capita is produced every year in the UK. So how far will Defra’s new programme increase the lifespan of products and enable ease of repair?
Encouragingly, chapter 2 is all about design – driving change so products are durable, repairable and recyclable, and can be ‘remanufactured’ (extensive reconditioning). Defra puts its finger on two key things here: premature obsolescence and informed consumer choice.
Chapter 3 talks about the importance of the right ecosystem of businesses for repair, while chapter 4 discusses using data to support business set-up. So far, so circular – and the good news doesn’t stop there. Initial implementation steps have been taken, embedding eco-design requirements into law for a small group of electrical appliances and obtaining legal powers to introduce similar requirements for others.
The Energy-related Products Policy Framework (2021), with its circular economy objective, commits to taking this further, stating that “the measures will help to establish a ‘right to repair’ for consumers as part of a more resource-efficient economy”. What’s missing, though, is a commitment to take action and use these powers.
When it comes to a well-functioning system of local repair and reuse centres, the programme refers to circular economy hubs. It also highlights the importance of reducing regulatory barriers to reuse. These come from stringent permitting requirements that make it expensive for third parties to collect and repair goods for resale.
Over the next few years, the development of producer responsibility schemes, as well as the use of labelling, eco-design powers and tax reform, will all be critical.
Producer responsibility schemes, where producers pay the end-of-life costs of products, can help, but the schemes already in existence – such as the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) system – haven’t yet supported repair. Defra says it wants to “ensure that the future WEEE system is compatible with our circular economy objectives”, and is looking to gather views in a separate call for evidence on product design.
Many questions remain. Should modulated fees be used to encourage more repairable products? Can the fund support the ecosystem of repairing and remanufacturing businesses? Do we now need a law on planned obsolescence, such as those in France, Italy and Portugal?
On this latter point, I’d argue that eco-design requirements that are strict enough can solve the problem and avoid the difficult need to prove intent when challenging manufacturers.
Going back to my reupholstered chair, I wonder if we need to think more about VAT. Removing this from things such as furniture upholstery could stop repair being more expensive than buying new, while also supporting local jobs and high streets.
The building blocks for enabling repair are in place, in the form of legal powers and broad commitments to the direction of travel. A lot more is needed, however, to make repairability and longevity the norm, and to support commercial repair. Over the next few years, the development of producer responsibility schemes, as well as the use of labelling, eco-design powers and tax reform, will all be critical.