Action, please! Europe’s vision for a circular economy

Action, please! Europe’s vision for a circular economy

The European Commission just published its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), aiming to pave Europe’s way towards a sustainable products policy and a circular economy. One of its goals is to encourage businesses to offer, and to allow consumers to choose, reusable, durable and repairable products—and the Right to Repair is about to become an essential piece of that puzzle.

If it exists, it’s possible

Remember when toxic lead was a common petrol ingredient? Or when cars had no seat belts or catalytic converters, cigarettes were sold without health warnings, and food had no nutrition labeling? It’s hard, but it was everyday life for decades.

Those three big industries—food, health, and automotive—were brought under public oversight to limit negative impacts on the environment and human health and safety, at least in some areas. It makes sense to extend this oversight to the electronics industry. How we use, repair, and discard electronics have a big impact on both the environment and human health.

According to a new Eurobarometer survey, more than 90% of European citizens want to protect the environment and climate. With its proposals, the European Commission is getting serious about making that wish come true: The CEAP targets many aspects of daily life including electronics, textiles, construction, food, and plastics. The plan highlights the need for policy frameworks and stands to be a solid blueprint for the Right to Repair. And all that lines up beautifully with the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.  

Infographic showing Eurobarometer survey result
The most recent Eurobarometer survey is proof: People want to keep their devices longer. ©

Tons of devices prematurely become e-waste every year even though they could be repaired, upgraded, or have their parts harvested for other devices. It’s no secret, and it’s not what consumers want, but we’ve been lacking the legislation and actions to prevent it. The CEAP wants to change that.

How does the CEAP aim to address the throwaway economy?

1. Replacing a broken device is often way cheaper and more convenient than having it repaired.

Do you know where you can repair all the devices you own? Thought so. But you do know where to buy a new one. To make repair—not replacement—the path of least resistance, spare parts need to be fairly priced and easily accessible. We also need repair manuals and more awareness of repair options—from DIY fixes to third party repairs and manufacturer’s repair services.

Here’s what the CEAP says: To “ensure that consumers receive trustworthy and relevant information on products at the point of sale, including on their lifespan and on the availability of repair services, spare parts and repair manuals”, the EU wants to work on “informing consumers on how and where they can have their products repaired”. A bit vague, but promising!

2. Modern devices come with tons of features, but repairability ain’t one of them.

Up to 80% of products’ environmental impacts are determined at the design phase. Glued-in batteries or unusual screws are no rarity in electronics. They’re a huge barrier to repair, in restricting access, undermining DIY confidence and increasing costs. While most manufacturers aim for high-end looks over repairable design, some are proving that those aren’t mutually exclusive. HP has shown that best-in-class repairability can come in a very thin form factor, and manufacturers like Dell or Lenovo support repairs and troubleshooting remarkably well.

Mandatory labeling with a repairability score, based on the new EN45554 standard—or our very own repairability rankings—could help consumers identify products that are easy to fix before their actual purchase, and significantly increase product lifetimes.

What the CEAP wants to do about that: Determine key sustainability design parameters, including “product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability”. The EU also wants to extend its Ecodesign Directive, which is limited to TVs, servers, and appliances so far, to mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Sounds auspicious, and we’re curious to learn more about the intended mandatory measures.

Young man fixing a phone
Besides mobile phones, the CEAP wants to focus on tablets and laptops in its framework for circular and repairable design.

3. Increasingly it’s not the hardware, but software support and updates, forcing new purchases.

When Apple throttled iPhone batteries to make them last longer, they didn’t explain it to their customers, causing lots of confusion and new purchases. When Sonos announced they would  end legacy product support in May 2020, they were heavily criticized. And for Android devices, software support is just historically bad. Subpar software becomes a gateway to new device purchases, and waste, even when the hardware itself is perfectly functional.

How the CEAP tackles it: The CEAP rightly says that if a device’s software is no longer supported, “value is lost”. Therefore, its Circular Electronics Initiative is supposed to include “a right to update obsolete software” in its Right to Repair actions. Still too nebulous, if you ask us!

So what does it mean?

Overall, the Circular Economy Action Plan sounds like a hopeful foundation for building a culture of repair and waste prevention in a circular economy. But if manufacturers like Apple are lobbying against the EU’s plans for common chargers, and the delusional belief in economic growth-as-usual remains persistent, we still have a long way to go. We hope the EU will be able to withstand industry strong-arm tactics and turn their proposals into ambitious laws quickly. Ultimately, well-enforced regulations are the best way to force manufacturers to incorporate repair in their design process, resulting in devices that are as repairable as they are innovative and slick.

Are you a recent convert, or have we been preaching to the choir? Show your support by signing the petition of the Right to Repair Europe campaign, and stand up to our current economic system by fixing something today! Our pale blue dot will thank you.