We can't save the planet unless we fix our destructive throwaway economy

Plans to scale-up repair, reuse and remanufacture must be at the heart of any Green New Deal.

Janet Gunter
20 September 2019, 10.42am
Image: Justin Ritchie, CC BY-NC 2.0

Extending the lifetime of all washing machines, notebooks, vacuum cleaners and smartphones in the EU by just one year would save around 4 MtCO2 annually by 2030, the equivalent of taking over 2 million cars off the roads.

This calculation, contained in a new report from the European Environmental Bureau, highlights one of the reasons I have spent weekends and evenings helping other people fix their broken possessions for the past seven years. Our London-based group The Restart Project is proud to be a part of a global grassroots movement — the community repair movement.

Grassroots and global movement

Around the world thousands of groups come together at community venues to fix a never-ending flow of prematurely broken products, from kettles to laptops and paper shredders. It's not so remarkable that we are all doing the same activity, but that we all work with the same ethos. We are not creating free repair shops, instead we are hosting transformative learning events that contribute to social cohesion.

Participants can learn why their product broke, gain new skills, and question the frustrating and broken system of production and consumption that we have created. Our events are designed to stimulate demand for better products and for the return of the commercial repair sector.

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This week, we’re in Berlin to meet over 150 other repair activists from around the world – from across Europe, the US, Canada, Argentina, South Africa and Asia.

We are gathering at this global “Fixfest” to learn from our repair experiences, share best practices and discuss how we can fix the earth-destroying throwaway economy that has emerged in many countries, and prevent it from emerging in new countries.

Defending our Right to Repair

Many imported goods have really short lifespans, and some end up at our community repair events. Up to 80% of a small electronic device’s carbon footprint — over the whole of its lifecycle — is emitted before it even reaches us.

When working towards net zero carbon emissions we must not ignore these “consumption emissions”. The waste and climate crises are global and solutions must be global too. We face the same barriers to repairing and keeping products for longer.

We are trying at the grassroots. We’re innovating in providing repairs for products where there is no longer any viable commercial model (just like the people who invented recycling, who did it at the grassroots and then governments followed).

But it’s not enough to ask individuals to change when the systems themselves are hostile to these changes, and not supporting any move to scale.

Around the world, citizen activists, environmental organisations and repair businesses are pushing for “Right to repair” regulation, or beginning to. It looks slightly different in every region, but there are some common themes: design for disassembly and repair, and access to repair documentation and spare parts. We need manufacturers to return to making products that are both repairable and durable – and regulation is the way forward.

The role of Europe

We are helping launch a multi-year European Right to Repair Campaign as a part of a wide coalition this week in Berlin, to keep up the pressure on European lawmakers and institutions.

Currently we see the European Union as very well placed to bring change, globally. Thanks also to pressure from civil society organisations, the EU brought new regulation requiring manufacturers of products such as washing machines and televisions, to ensure access to repair manuals, some spare parts and to design them in a way to simplify disassembly for repair. These so-called “Ecodesign” regulations will be enforced across the EU from 2021.

It is telling that the Green Alliance wrote this week that it appears the UK government is planning to keep up with the EU on ecodesign: there is no going back.

But this is just the beginning, and we need a lot more: universal access to spare parts and repair manuals for all products, to unlock repair opportunities at individual, community and commercial level.

We need change, and we need it much faster than any regulator is planning for.

A popular way to create green jobs

We strongly believe that community-led action on resources can boost the commercial sector and vice versa.

We recognise that repair, reuse and remanufacture jobs are the original green jobs. And the barriers businesses face in these sectors map very directly to the barriers communities face in taking better care of resources.

While we often think about sustainable food, low-carbon transport and renewable energy when we think of tools to respond to the climate crisis, we need to add repair and better use of resources to the net zero toolbox.

Polling data in Canada, Europe, the UK and the US shows measures ensuring manufacturers allow the public to repair products are wildly popular with the public, across the political spectrum — and our experience at the grassroots is there is an increasing appetite for longer-lasting products.

So far, given the popularity of the Right to Repair and action on waste, we’ve seen far too little attention to resource policy in the Green New Deal agenda. Remanufacture, reuse and repair should not be treated as footnotes, but instead as the original “green jobs” – recognising their profound social value.

There is everything to win, not just for the planet but for a fairer and more just economy.

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