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Should we all have the ‘right to repair’?

What happens when products experience a fault? Our guest Ugo, co-founder of the Restart Project, discusses whether we should have the ‘right to repair’.

This is a guest post by Ugo Vallauri. All views expressed are Ugo’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

In 2016, the UK produced 24.9kg of e-waste per person, and a lot of it can’t be, or isn’t being, recycled.

For many small electrical and other electronic products on the market, there’s virtually no repair option once the warranty period is over.

Repair options are often limited to very few faults, while most spare parts aren’t available, or they’re priced in a way to discourage repairs.

Sadly, repair isn’t an option for some products even within warranty, as some manufacturers prefer to replace them. Consumers are asked to recycle the faulty ones.

Community repair events

For the past seven years, The Restart Project has been running ‘Restart Parties’ in London –  community repair events where volunteers work with participants to fix their broken devices.

Volunteers share repair and maintenance tips to help everyone make sense of the often hidden compromises we make when buying a product.

We inspire others to replicate our events, and we’re part of a growing global movement pushing for the Right to repair.

While we tend to focus on sustainability in terms of energy consumption, the largest environmental impact for most products occurs before we switch them on for the first time.

Smartphones are a good example – approximately 80% of their greenhouse gas emissions occur during manufacturing, compared with 15% during the use phase.

Therefore, the best thing we can do is extending a product’s lifespan by repairing and reusing it, only recycling it when all other options aren’t viable. This is true for most consumer products, from blenders to headphones.

Repair restrictions

It is encouraging to see that Which? is putting an increasing emphasis on the barriers to product repairability, for example, assessing the ease of disassembly of cordless vac when a battery replacement is required.

Yet the scale of the problem is so big that no organisation (or country!) can tackle it on its own.

We need all products to be repairable, and a lot more transparency from manufacturers to help us make better informed purchasing decisions.

Restart Party attendees are often surprised when they learn that manufacturers of their favourite devices actively try to restrict customers from repairing them.

This is why we need a universal Right to Repair: access to repair manuals for everyone, long-term availability of appropriately priced spare parts, and products designed to be disassembled for repair.

That means that if a part needs replacing, we’re not damaging a device further while trying to fix it. I’m part of a growing movement across the world working on this, and collaborating with partners to push for legislation to be adopted at EU level.

What can you do?

In the UK, community repair volunteers gathered at Fixfest and launched the ‘Manchester Declaration’, which calls for legislators, product manufacturers and designers to help remove all barriers to making repair the default option when something breaks.

We’d also like to see a repairability score index implemented in the UK and across Europe to help complement and scale the important work done by consumer organisations such as Which?.

Community repair alone won’t fix the problem. We need the return to a vibrant repair economy where repairable products built to last can be serviced and can also thrive when sold on as second-hand.

Everyone can help. If you have repair skills to share, join a local community repair initiative, or perhaps even start your own.

If something breaks at home and it’s no longer covered by warranty, try your best to get it repaired at an event, or by visiting a reliable local repair business.

You can also help us spread the word about the need for a real Right to Repair for all our devices.

This was a guest post by Ugo Vallauri. All views expressed were Ugo’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Photo credit: Mark Phillips.

Comments

In 2016, the UK produced 24.9kg of e-waste….

Should that be 24.9kg of e-waste per person, higher than the EU average of 17.7kg per person?

Well spotted and corrected, thanks Alfa!

I had to check what e-waste was (elderly, you see) and, of course,it is electronic waste. And it is about 10kg p.a. per head more in the UK than the Europe average, according to reports.

I am totally in favour of the concept of repairing and recycling of, or recovery of valuable materials from, any product, including electronic items. We do need a movement to require all the information and parts necessary be provided to repair a product, whether diy (with disclaimers of course) or through a third party, like a repair shop or club. If the product cannot be repaired it should be illegal to send it to landfill (under WEEE it may well be) but much seems to have ended up there. The waste collector should be required to send it to a specialist materials recovery facility.

There was an interesting BBC4 programme on waste the other night, and it touched on the economics of “mining” old landfill sites with a view to recovering scarce, valuable and contaminating materials. I wonder if that will ever happen.

I have come across “repair clubs” before and think they are a great idea. Could they ever be of a scale to handle a mass movement. It would be very useful if Which? did a feature on them and where they can be found. I’m sure many people would have products repaired if only they could find a repairer.

The question is, how do we move in the direction of repair, recycle and recover when we seem to have a discard culture – mobile phones are the example highlighted, but even simple things like primary batteries. And how do we persuade global manufacturers to provide the information and materials needed at acceptable cost? I doubt the UK could do it alone; it would require an EU base to have any impact. There is a circular economy will in Europe but I’ve seen little progress.

Ugo, thanks for the informative link. I agree that repair instructions and spare parts should be made available to all, accepting that diy repairs will be at the owner’s risk. Not so sure about withholding repaor manuals for 2 years after the launch of a product; all products will be under guarantee for at least 1 year and many consumers will not buy the product in the first year after launch.

I suspect that the internet will step in – many repair manuals already seem to be available there, as are spare parts. A big concern is how the design of products is made such as they can be “easily” accessed for repair; this may well compromise the performance of products – resistance to moisture for example.

Even when we have repairable products I see one obstacle being the labour cost of a repair – calling a professional repairer out to see what is wrong with a washing machine for example, before deciding whether it is worth the cost of a repair. It would be useful to have access to diagnostics to identify possible problems.

When we pay for a product it becomes ours and we should not be denied the means of looking after it ourselves.

Making a correct diagnosis of the problem is just as important as having the skill and parts required to effect a satisfactory repair. More could be done to make fault-finding easier and through standardisation of components to rationalise and simplify repair techniques.

If you buy a product such as a Hotpoint washing machine, it is likely that some of the components will be identical to those used in other brands owned by the parent company, Whirlpool. With popular brands. components often continue to be available for years – either from the manufacturer or third party source. There is less chance that components are the same as those used by other manufacturers. I’m a bit out of touch but computers, especially desktop ones, often share components such as hard disks, memory cards, CPUs and fans.

It would be a huge step forward if more manufacturers shared components but I don’t know how that could be achieved.

I have had a look around the Restart Project website and think it is brilliant. I really like that it is being taken to schools to encourage students to develop repair skills and to possibly give them a future career.

I enjoy taking things to bits when they no longer work. Sometimes I can even repair them, at least I like to try.

My repair attempts probably started with my bicycle and learning to repair a puncture or broken chain, then old TVs, my first old banger that I couldn’t afford to take to take to a garage and my computers for over 25 years. Old black & white TVs were easy – look for something blackened, take it to a local shop, pay next to nothing for a replacement, plug it back in and hey presto, it usually worked.

World tech companies have got to stop forcing us to replace perfectly good tech such as mobile phones and computers. My gripe at the moment is my Windows 7 PC that Microsoft will stop supporting in 5 months time. We won’t go into alternative operating systems here but approximately one third of the world still uses Windows 7 and their old tech might not support an upgrade. so why when we need to really start looking after our planet is Windows 7 being ditched when it is perfectly serviceable?

Computer tech is only repairable and upgradeable for so long as there is very little backwards compatibility between components.

With computers, once identified, parts are easy to replace unlike many appliances. Manufacturers have to change and create sustainable products with replaceable and upgradeable parts.

Thanks for this Convo, Ugo. When I was a kid, products were simpler and to repair than they are now, and the high cost meant that most people would opt for a repair rather than buy new. Some would give it a go themselves and if the alternative was buying a replacement, there is little to lose. The same applies now, even though mass produced cheap products, and other challenges make repair less appealing.

Not only do spares need to be available, they must be available at a sensible price to make repair a viable option. I’m not sure how this would be achieved. With cars, spares tend to be available for a reasonable length of time, driven by the high cost of replacement and third party manufacturers that find it profitable to make parts, especially for the more popular models. Legislation would help, but be opposed by manufacturers that want customers to buy new. I think we should force the issue and insist that products such as phones have user-replaceable batteries. That might have been easier if we had not waited until none of the popular new smartphones feature a replaceable battery.

If I was a few years younger and had not become involved with working for charities I might have become involved with a local group that encouraged others to have a go at tackling repairs. In the early 80s I did respond to an advert for volunteers to repair talking books for the blind, but they wanted people with experience. If a local repair group is set up I certainly will show my face.

There are many computer enthusiasts that are capable of assembling and upgrading computers and replacing parts. As Alfa has mentioned, there is a lot that can be done with software, and that can be done without being able to wield a screwdriver, never mind a soldering iron. Working on computers could be a start towards developing an interest in doing more general repairs and younger people are more likely to have nimble fingers and good eyesight.

Hi Ugo – Unfortunately there is no local group at the moment. I do repairs for myself and close friends and I’m always happy to give advice to anyone who just needs a bit of encouragement.

When circuit boards first became available they were often repairable especially when circuit diagrams were readily available, but when integrated circuits, double-sided boards and surface-mounting components arrived, replacement became the only realistic option.

Thanks for your point about the price of spares. I very much support legislation that would the maximum cost of spares relative to the cost of the product. I can’t see manufacturers agreeing to that, but there are more consumers than manufacturers!

If my own experience is anything to go by, many repairs are very simple. A remote sensor for my weather station was losing contact with the display unit. Removing and replacing the batteries in the base station would sort out the problem for a short time and doing the same with the remote sensor did nothing. It was at least ten years old and I looked at getting a new one, but in the meantime I removed and replaced the batteries in both units at the same time and it has worked fine for the past month. Sometimes sat-navs misbehave and stop responding to controls, but taking them apart and disconnecting the battery for a short time will probably fix the problem.nnIn these days when even the cheapest electronic gadgets can contain microprocessors, many ‘repairs’ achieved with little effort.

There are many helpful videos on YouTube and even if they are not very good they can show that screws are concealed beneath rubber feet or behind labels.

The Restart Project has plenty of interesting material accompanied by short radio programmes. Here is an article about European regulations supporting the right to repair. https://therestartproject.org/podcast/spindoctor-steve-breakdown/ I’m not sure about some of the music.

I bought a new desk PC as they are easily repairable and upgradeable and still follow the modular principle ,it wasn’t cheap but that is what it costs for quality and reliability .
I am posting this on my old PC still in good working order .
There are two computer repair businesses in my local area ,there used to be three but its now a gift shop. For those doing their own repairs a good “Zap Strap ” is essential ,even BT supplied me with one when handling processor/ext cards ,all connections to live mains should be removed .
You must have basic training as electronic components can easily be destroyed by careless handling ,fully earthed soldering stations if doing repairs but most computers now only allow unit exchange not replaceable components which require basic electronic component teaching .
If we are talking basic household electrical equipment then check to see if the manufacturer has allowed for repair and not sealed it for life ,electrical repairs now legally require a qualified electrician with professional test equipment .

Andrea says:
31 August 2019

This is what started the open source movement… the right to fix or improve something that you have already paid

This is something Which? should campaign about strenuously, using its Supercomplaint rights. There should be an absolute right to repair. Anybody should be allowed, without risk of of legal action by a manufacturer to make and sell spare parts, if the manufacturer does not make them available at a reasonable price on a reasonable timescale. They can redesign or improve parts, if necessary, either to reduce the cost, make them more reliable or easier to retrofit.

Any manufacturer discontinuing supply of spares, must publish full drawings to enable others to produce the parts.

Which is one of the few organisations in the UK with the right to make a super-complaint and ideally would be part of a coordinated effort within Europe and possibly elsewhere.

Making spare parts available is only part of the problem. Some products are built in a way that makes repair difficult or not economically possible. For example, replacing drum bearings in a washing machine was once a straightforward job in most cases but now that machines use a ‘sealed tank’ it is necessary to replace the drum, tank, bearings and other components as a single assembly. This may be deliberate planned obsolescence or merely the result of making assembly of washing machines easier and cheaper, but either way the customer is very likely to need a new machine. With smaller products it’s well nigh impossible to do repairs and the case may even be glued together. That might be planned obsolescence or to help make it more water-resistant. Yes we need a super-complaint, DorsetMike.

We need, I’d suggest, a European initiative to require some products (initially) to be produced on a more sustainable basis – economically repairable both for parts and labour – and movement on the required durability of products (before they need a repair or other action to keep them working). I do not think the UK can do it on its own with most of the manufacturers being overseas and serving a much bigger market than us.

I say “some products” because this opens up the question of whether consumers should also be offered the cheapest products that still do the basic job required of them. This may require methods of building that are cheaper but do not lend themselves to (economic) repair.

This month’s Which? mag mentions (Feedback) a Beko washing machine as a “best buy” at £231; it is said to do the washing job well but “takes forever to complete a wash, is noisy and inefficient”. I question the concept of “best buy” when there is no indication of how long a product might last. BEKo had 14% failures by year 3 – I’m not sure that is particularly good. Is this a “sustainable product” if it is not economic to repair, and should it be classed as a “best buy”? I think we need to give some thought to what we are looking for. Maybe we need two product classes identified – one to satisfy the low user or those with very limited funds, and one for the normal user prepared to pay more for a durable product that can be economically repairable/maintainable.

As far as I know, the Which? figures do not distinguish between faults that are easy to repair and ones that result in the machine being scrapped. That is an important difference and without more detail the figures are not very meaningful.

I don’t believe that it is sustainable to make products that are not durable. Even if people can afford to pay for more expensive products they often opt for cheap ones because replace often makes more economic sense these days.

All this is all very well and I agree with it but we are dealing with practical/manual engineering repair of which I have spent my whole life actually doing and getting paid for it.
Its time get down to earth and not let this get out of hand as in reality someone could be killed and who would take the blame ?

I am as practical as they come but would have been dead long ago if it were not for my thick skin giving me a high body resistance to electrical pressure and therefore the lack of build up of electrical current .
Secondly it must be said working with machinery can give you some bad cuts my body is covered with them including two broken fingers and a spinal injury (disc lower back ).
I have worked in every aspect of practical engineering maintenance and one of the first things you learn at night school/college is SAFETY and I get the feeling this sustainability drive is skirting round the issue .
Nowadays looking at serious injuries due to attempted repairs are banned due to upsetting people I am afraid this type of dogma doesn’t save lives and a prominent disclaimer should be posted otherwise those with no skills but want to get “on the bandwagon ” will get close up to some real carpentry structure—–a pine box.

I’m not too sure whether you are just drawing attention to the need to take care and understand your limitations duncan; I’d agree with that. However I would not want that to be an excuse to deny everyone access to information and parts needed to effect a repair. Any diy repair should be at the individual’s own risk providing repair information is clear.

Many of us undertake diy which can be dangerous if care is not taken. A circular saw can cause serious injury but anyone can buy one.

One of the reasons I would like to visit a Restart Project is to find out how those involved are taught to work safely – dealing with potential dangers in a safe way.

Electrical equipment that uses an external power supply to provide low voltage means that the equipment can be worked on ‘live’ without risk of an electric shock. Examples would be phones, laptops, some printers, some radios, etc. If people are repairing their own mains electrical equipment, I assume that this will be done when not connected to mains voltage, and inspected and tested by someone with expertise before it is reassembled and plugged in.

DerekP says:
3 September 2019

Live working has always been a potential hazard when trying to fix mains equipment. I’ve recently scrapped a small desk fan with a broken motor coil. Had it been for my own own use I might have attempted a repair, but I did not want to take on any safety liability in regard to electrical and fire safety in its owner’s house.

In a world where we expect the highest possible standards of electrical and fire safety from our white goods, I’m not sure I’d be entirely happy with using anything repaired by a keen but unqualified amateur.

The safety liability is why I do not now carry out repairs for anyone other than close friends and family, though if they are prepared to do the job I am happy to offer tools and advice.

From the Restart Project’s website:
“Do fixes include software and hardware fixes? Which are more common?

Many of our fixes are in fact software related.

Issues related to software contribute to a feeling of “perceived obsolescence”, and motivate an owner of a device to abandon it, when a simple software fix can address the frustrations of a user and prolong the lifecycle of a gadget. In fact, often times mobiles, tablets and laptops can refuse to boot due to software problems.

With laptops, software fixes are just as common as hardware ones.”

It would be interesting to hear from Ugo to learn how risk is managed at Restart repair sessions. What happens, for example, if someone turns up with an iron, a toaster or other small item that is directly connected to the mains rather than using a low voltage power supply.

DerekP says:
15 September 2019

Thanks Ugo it is great to know that you are dealing with those issues.

Again relating to industrial engineering I wish you well Ugo trying to get the world manufacturers to revert to old practices in Assembly Line construction (especially China ) .
1-I don’t know if you know it but it has been costed to $billions -yes Billions , I know assembly line practice and I don’t see world manufacturers including shareholders doing so .
2-“Safety/Security screws ” weren’t fitted for safety they were to stop people repairing their own equipment I read all the US business journals on engineering ,that caused a big upset in the USA the home of DIY (which I am for )
now its rivets/glue .

I am a member of an organisation to rebuild BRITISH engineering but it is up against stiff opposition –HMG and Globalisation .

I am at present waiting for a high quality Keysafe from an English company which is capable of dis- assembly with “security screws ” but it is a quality -USA made import.

Best of luck though I am with you in spirit !

Thanks Ugo. I had assumed that safety matters were in hand and it’s good that you have confirmed this.

Yes anybody can buy a chainsaw and use it but if you look at the much larger US population every year somebody loses fingers/arms and even feet and blood loss has brought their efforts to an end—-permanently.
But we are dealing here with a practical public push on sustainability and if you are part of an eco policy drive then you must be serious about it in all areas ,in other words exactly as you Malcolm as a Professional Engineer and Wavechange as a Professor have said here constantly —-professionalism .

I have seen many serious injuries by those not concentrating on what they are doing or feel they “know it all ” and therefore portray a lax attitude which in the end comes back to bite them—seriously .
If this sounds negative its certainly not meant to be I am 100% behind this but we are dealing with a British public who are no longer in jobs related directly to engineering and the country is run as a service industry ,so this loss of practical knowledge in the general population is a big hindrance to understanding the basics of engineering ,I just don’t want to see any loss of life or limb due to this initiative.

We bought a chainsaw many, many years ago and the first thing I did was to get a local tree surgeon pal to teach me the ins and outs of using the thing. He mentioned some things to which I’d never given any thought; encountering a nail or embedded piece of wire can have catastrophic consequences. Glad to say I never had an accident, but was always extremely careful about using it.

DerekP says:
3 September 2019

As mitigation for the 14-year old Canon MP 750 and the 10 year old Epson SX200 that I recently scrapped as being beyond economic repair, I have been lucky enough to acquire a 12 year old HP LaserJet 1018 as a replacement. It may even run on 3rd party toner carts, but I won’t find out until it runs out of toner. My new printer cost me all of £10 from a local charity shop and has been sold to me “in working order”.

HP LaserJet printers – certainly ones of this vintage – run happily on refilled and third party cartridges, in my experience. If the printer starts jamming when printing multiple pages it is likely to be due to deterioration of the rubber rollers after the fuser, which soften with the heat.

Retrieving small scraps of paper from the insides of printers can sometimes be a challenge but it’s worth it if you can save the printer and not be left with a stock of spare inkjet or toner cartridges that are unlikely to fit a new printer.

Derek – You have mentioned the Computer Buddy sessions you are involved with a couple of times. Do these involve users’ laptops rather than computers provided and is there much scope to help people resolve software related problems that might enable a user to continue using a computer rather than buy a new one?

I’m trying to look at ways that ‘repairs’ need not raise the safety concerns that come up every time we discuss DIY work.

DerekP says:
3 September 2019

As hosted by Gloucester Library, these computer buddy sessions mostly focus on helping folk to use either the library PC’s or their own devices.

For the latter, that might include software upgrades but won’t usually include obvious hardware surgery.

This may change in the future, because the planned provision of a 3D printer may be used to establish some kind of “maker workshop”.

Thanks Derek. Software upgrades are one way that users can prolong the useful life of computers. There is a limit to what can be done in a library but with the right facilities and experienced staff, plenty can be achieved. In my experience people often replace products because of trivial problems that can easily be dealt with.

DerekP says:
5 September 2019

In my former life as a sales droid, I was told that most folk act to buy new goods and services on the basis of irrational choices (or “buy factors”) rather than because of sound technical/rational needs. We were also told that technical factors would be applied to allow the retrospective justification of those choices against more rational criteria.

Hence, for example, “I want a new PC” becomes “I need a new PC because (reasons…)”.

In certain shops, sales staff will be trained to guide new customers through this process, even (or especially) when the customer has no real need to acquire new kit. In the past, I have also wondered whether some Which? reviews have also unduly hyped the benefits of buying new kit in contrast to the option of carrying on with existing kit.

I can see it now…”These are not the laptops you want. Move on.” 🙂

Tony G says:
6 September 2019

I often fix things (for free) and I’ve found the manufactures of hot roller encapsulaters will refuse to supply any spares. When the rollers jam, a tiny tooth can break off in the gearbox. That can scrap an expensive piece of equipment sometimes 2 to 3 hundred pounds – what a waste when no spares are sold.

Lessismore says:
17 September 2019

This is a brilliant initiative. So often there is nothing wrong or nothing really really wrong. We do not get enough information on how to troubleshoot some of the problems – often caused by the paperclip or small piece of paper stuck in a machine.

I remember my in-laws taking a microwave to the tip because the light inside no longer worked.
I’ve seen vacuum cleaners discarded because the owner can’t find a new bag to fit. Or even because they just need the bag emptying. How sad is this? How incapable have we become or are we being made to become. Why shouldn’t we be able to do things like change the belt in a vacuum or take out the brushes and unwind all the hair wrapped around them or take all the jewellery and tights etc out of the vacuum hose?

On many microwave ovens it is necessary to remove the case to replace the light bulb. There is no reason for this design, yet it means that many are scrapped when the bulb fails.

Care is needed because microwaves contain a large capacitor that can store a high voltage long after the oven is unplugged, though it is normal to include a resistor to discharge this capacitor.

Hopefully, modern microwaves will have long-lasting LED lamps.

Your wish has been answered Wavechange LED bulbs are now the de-facto choice of quality Microwave manufacturers .
The predecessor being halogen , “normal ” light bulbs are being phased out.

That’s encouraging. Fridges have LED lighting too.

The next time I have to replace the bulb in my microwave oven I will fit an LED lamp. The oven is now 30 years old and still works fine.

That’s a long time to wait for a hot pasty.

But Wave doesn’t like them underdone 🙂