Over the last 24 months we have seen the concept of circular economy being included in an increasing number of government policies at the local, state and federal levels; a very welcome development. However, most of these policies have focused near exclusively on the waste management and recycling sector, which is just one of many areas of the circular economy picture requiring action.
If we really want to reduce waste and act in accordance with circular economy principles, we need to move up the waste hierarchy to improve the durability, repairability and reusability of our products. This is where the right to repair comes in, a topic receiving significant attention recently in response to growing community concern that everyday products are becoming harder to repair.
This lack of consumer rights to appropriate repair options leads to higher costs and greater inconvenience for consumers, as well as growing quantities of waste. An associated issue is that of product manufacturers voiding warranty protection when repairs are carried out by individuals or third-party operators, which also diminishes consumer ability to increase the working life of their purchases.
At the end of 2020, the Australian Productivity Commission announced it would be launching an inquiry into the right to repair, specifically focusing on individuals’ ability to repair faulty goods, or access repair services, at a competitive price. This could include a repair by a manufacturer, a third-party repair, or a self-repair through available replacement parts and repair information.
The commission was asked to look at the current barriers and enablers of competition in repair markets and the costs and benefits of a regulated ‘right to repair’. The commission also committed to looking at arrangements for preventing premature or planned product obsolescence, the proliferation of e-products on the market and opportunities to keep them from being sent to landfill through improved access to repairs.
As part of the inquiry, the commission requested submissions from relevant stakeholders. One of those submitting was founder of the World’s Biggest Garage Sale (WBGS) and good friend of the ACE Hub Yasmin Grigaliunas. WBGS have been an instrumental part of the burgeoning right to repair movement in Australia, diverting over 4.3 million kilograms of potential waste from landfill to date with a significant portion requiring disassembly or repair.
We asked Yasmin why the right to repair is important in a successful circular economy.
ACE Hub: Why does the WBGS see the right to repair as an important part of the circular economy?
Yasmin Grigaliunas: Repair is fundamental to the circular economy. It’s one of the innermost loops of the circular economy, with the strategy being to keep products and materials in use by prolonging their lifespan for as long as possible through designing for durability as well as providing options for maintenance and repair.
Our ability to create a framework and mechanisms that allow manufacturers, service providers and consumers to be able to repair products economically, is vital to ensure we move beyond just recycling as the only option for so many products that are at end of life.
What quantity of goods has WBGS diverted from landfill through disassembly and repair processes to date?
We estimate that approximately 50 per cent of the products we’ve diverted from landfill go through some sort of disassembly, repurposing or repair (Editor’s note: WBGS have diverted over 4.3 million kilograms of items from landfill to date in total, meaning over 2 million kilograms of items have been diverted through disassembly, repurpose or repair).
A significant portion of dormant items in Australia, in particular electronics, could have another life through disassembly and repair. Including a plan for repair in the initial design stage of products is fundamental to achieving this.
What kind of resources are required to undertake this task in terms of tools, labour and money? What are the costs involved?
When we consider repair, the resources required depend on the product category. Furniture repairs will need very different tools and abilities when compared with electronics. Through our work at World’s Biggest Garage Sale we have found there is a significant cost involved in disassembling items and repairing them (if possible). Here is what we have found:
In some cases, it’s relatively quick and simple to repair an item e.g., a chair with a broken wheel/missing part/minor damage.
Consumers are definitely interested in seeing their products repaired or renewed to extend their life, with reupholstery of furniture being a value-add service customers are willing to pay for.
Some products are designed to be extremely difficult to disassemble, requiring specialist tools and manuals that are not readily available. This means the only solution for these imperfect goods is deconstruction into constituent parts, if possible, for repurposing. The deconstruction process can be very costly (time consuming) because the items haven’t been made with end of life (or continued life) as a consideration.
Products with electrical components that are no longer working are often sent to be recycled before being assessed for repair. This is primarily because the expertise required are scarce and the costs associated with deconstructing the product, identifying the problem for repair and finding the part to repair it often far outweighs the original sell price of the product.
What are the barriers you find the organisation running into when it comes to repairing items and how often do you think these barriers result in items going to landfill?
The main barrier for us as a business is the labour cost to repair items, particularly those that weren’t designed with repair in mind. Some of the biggest issues the market faces currently is that we now have an economy that has developed around planned obsolescence and a consumer culture that has been trained into replacing rather than repairing or renewing items. We also have retailers seeking competitive advantage by offering the lowest possible price point, which means products are made as cheaply as possible, with little consideration for repair or remanufacturing during product design. In other words, what we have is a systems-wide problem.
The common plight of many consumers is that as soon as the warranty period of a device has expired, it breaks. This is often followed by the familiar catch-cry, ‘they don’t build them like they used to’.
It’s often just a small issue preventing the item from working but repair is made impossible because:
spare parts are difficult to acquire or there aren’t any available
you can’t repair it because everything is glued instead of screwed or a special tool is required to open the product
the repair would be more expensive than a new purchase,
consumers are not encouraged or educated to care and repair
Commonplace products that could easily be repaired such as washing machines, televisions or refrigerators often end up going to landfill as a result.
What changes do you think are required in order to make repair a more viable option for consumers? Further, how important is it to change consumer attitudes towards the products they buy for this to become a more mainstream solution?
What we have now is a whole-system problem. For repair to become commonplace, we need products to be designed with repair in mind. It’s not just about consumers, this is about regulation as well as manufacturers, service providers and consumers all designing and participating in a whole new system. Consumers can lead the way by purchasing products and services now that support this type of model.
To find out more about the work being carried out by World’s Biggest Garage Sale, check out their case study profile.
For more information about the Productivity Commission’s Right to Repair Inquiry, visit https://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/repair. The final report is expected to be sent to the Australian Government by 29 October 2021.
Note: Some answers have been edited for clarity.