73.The Circular Economy and Waste Hierarchy are clear that preventing waste is the first, most important step to reducing the environmental impact of products. The current system, often called a linear economy, is characterised by a high throughput of new products and waste, which demands significant resources. In August 2020, DEFRA published its monitoring plans for the Resources and Waste strategy and the targets supporting the Environment Bill. This contained a commitment to double resource productivity by 2050 measured by GDP over raw material consumption. Theoretically this means that GDP should increase at double the rate of material use. The monitoring plans also included measuring the per capita resource consumption in this country which is currently at 14.7 tonnes of material per year. Various studies have suggested that a sustainable level of resource consumption could be between six and eight tonnes per person per year. Other than improving resource consumption as a proportion of GDP, DEFRA currently has no targets to reduce the raw material consumption per person in this country to sustainable levels.
74.Researchers have found there to be a direct link between GDP purchasing power of a country and the amount of E-waste that a country generates. In evidence to this inquiry the organisation Resource Recovery from Waste were clear that:
In order to realise the aspirations on environmental net-gains set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan and to be enforced via the forthcoming Environment Bill, it is of critical importance that the Government sets ambitious targets for a reduction of per capita resource consumption and/ or increased resource productivity (based on material stocks and flows in the UK and not on GDP) via electric and electronic goods as well as all other goods in the UK.
75.We have heard that better resource efficiency, using resources more effectively, and generally reducing our resource use are important parts of a circular economy and could save considerable carbon emissions, reduce the impact of extraction and manufacturing on biodiversity, water-use and quality and health hazards—all ambitions within the Government strategies. A target designed to reduce resource and material consumption would underpin the circular economy by both driving action to reduce resource use in the design and manufacture phase (putting less in) and using resources better (getting more out) and, if met, could help the UK achieve some of its climate reduction ambitions. Resource efficiency and a reduction in product consumption are all recommended by the UK Climate Change Committee.
76.It is welcome that Government plans to monitor progress against the Resource and Waste Strategy, including both a measure of per capita material and resource consumption and measures of resource productivity with the goal being to double resource productivity by 2050. As a complement to monitoring per capita material consumption, there must also be a target in place to reduce consumption to a sustainable level in line with the research highlighted in this report. Due to the increasing number of electronics and the materials contained within them there should be a sub-target for per capita resource-use in electronics that is in line with this wider target.
77.Libby Peake from Green Alliance told us that the existing mandatory eco-design product standards have focused on energy use. These have delivered massive carbon savings that according to BEIS’ estimates for 2020 have saved the average household in the UK £100 on their energy bills. At the EU level these energy efficiency standards have saved the equivalent of five per cent of EU electricity consumption and €20 billion in total on household and business energy bills. The success of energy efficiency standards could be replicated through minimum eco-design standards for resource efficiency. Ways of improving our efficient use of resources include more durable products that can be more easily repaired and more re-use of products by other individuals. This chapter now turns to that.
78.Research undertaken by Professor Tim Cooper has found that a product’s lifetime should, in most cases, be extended for as long as possible since roughly speaking, doubling a lifespan will halve the product’s environmental impact. Green Alliance has put some figures on specific electronic products that show how lengthening a lifespan can save carbon, energy and water consumption. According to a European Environmental Bureau (EEB) study (2019), extending the lifetime of all washing machines, smartphones, laptops and vacuum cleaners in the EU by one year would lead to annual savings of around four million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, which is equivalent to taking over two million cars off the roads for a year.
79.Research shows that the durability of products has been changing. For white goods there has been a clear decrease in lifetimes, for example, the average lifetime of a washing machine fell from an average life of 10 years to seven years between 2000 and 2010. An increasing number of appliances also fail within the first five years of their life—for example, the number of large household appliances being replaced within the first five years of their service life due to a defect increased from 3.5 per cent in 2004 to 8.3 per cent in 2013. For other Large Domestic Appliances (LDAs), a 2012 study, found that 50 per cent of UK customers were replacing a product less than eight years old and for fridges, the UK had the lowest average replacement age (5.1 years) and Sweden/Finland the highest at 6.8 years. For smartphones the change hasn’t always been towards a shorter life. In 2013, the average smartphone lifetimes in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK were around 18.3 months, rising to 21.6 months in 2016, potentially due to the decreasing rate of innovation. This is still, however, far lower than the potential lifetime of a smartphone because they tend to be replaced for behavioural or technical reasons like the launch of new improved models and social expectations.
80.Most studies show that consumers want more durable products. Green Alliance research found that 65 per cent of people feel frustrated about how long products last, and 62 per cent at the difficulty of repair. 75 per cent said that Government should ensure businesses produce repairable and recyclable products. Low-income groups are most affected by short product lifetimes and are often afraid of taking the risks associated with buying high-priced products as there is a concern among some of the consumers that planned obsolescence (see below) is a widespread phenomenon.
81.If premature obsolescence is intentional, (when a product is designed to have a shorter life so that consumers are required to repeat purchases), it is referred to as planned or programmed obsolescence. For example, in December 2017 it was found that an update to Apple iOS software led to a slowing down of its devices. This led to a €25 million fine in March 2020 from French regulators. Apple also recently agree to settle a case in California on this. In 2018 Samsung and Apple were fined €5 million and €10 million respectively by the Italian authorities for software updates that slowed down phones. Apple made no public comment, but Samsung expressed disappointment with the decision, which it plans to appeal.
82.The European Environment Agency states that although there have been numerous documented cases of products designed to make repair not viable—for example sealed drums in washing machines or mobile phones with non-removable batteries or inkjet cartridges with a chip that prevents them being re-used —it is difficult to prove that the obsolescence is planned or that products are designed to break. Despite this lack of evidence, many contributors to our inquiry do believe it is taking place. For example, Jim Puckett from Basel Action Network stated that:
Sadly, planned obsolescence is real. More and more manufacturers… are intentionally making things not repairable and not long-lived. We have to reverse that.
83.This is not just done through ‘mechanical obsolescence’ but also incompatibility. Libby Peake from Green Alliance, echoed by the Restart Project, stated that new software updates are often not supported on older hardware meaning it becomes necessary to replace the hardware despite the physical product still working. For example, 40 per cent of Smartphones running the Android operating system are no longer receiving security updates. IPhones, up to iPhone 6 released in 2015, are now considered obsolete, due to lack of software updates. Green Alliance and the Restart Project said that mandating, through legislation that products can have their software upgraded is a way around this.
84.The EU is attempting to address some of these concerns with (1) the introduction of resource efficiency requirements through changes to the Eco-design Directive agreed in October 2019, which will come into force in April 2021 and (2) through its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), announced in March 2020. France and Italy, amongst others, have introduced a ban on ‘planned obsolescence’ where it is illegal intentionally to shorten the lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it, whilst they are also legally required to inform customers up-front about the lifespan of their products. The EU Circular Economy Action Plan has promised to ban planned or in-built obsolescence.
85.The UK Government must confirm that it intends to follow the approach taken by other countries to ban the practice of intentionally shortening the lifespan of products through planned obsolescence.
86.Professor Tim Cooper argued that consumers need to be better informed about the anticipated lifetime and repairability of electrical and electronic goods. In evidence to our inquiry he states that “labelling and differentiated warranties could be used to indicate durability and reliability”. In a study by the European Economic and Social Committee, it was noted that products with a lifespan label saw increased sales of 13.8 per cent. This is the approach taken in Austria, which issues guidelines on reuse and has issued standards for a ‘label of excellence’ to indicate that the electronic equipment has been designed to be durable and repair-friendly. Minister Pow indicated that the Government is looking into labelling and warranties in these areas.
87.The Restart Project also suggested expanding on legislation being proposed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to include all internet-connect devices, including for example smartphones. The current proposal requires manufacturers of “internet of things” devices to state, at the point of sale, how long the device will receive security updates.
88.To popularise strategies to extend product lifetimes and encourage sharing, Green Alliance argued that policymakers should address concerns around trust by improving consumer rights. It says that consumer rights legislation and access to justice need to be modernised to cover new business models. The importance of consumer rights legislation has been echoed by researchers, consumer rights groups and contributors to the inquiry. Professor Tim Cooper told us that:
Options such as a minimum five-year guarantee on a product might increase product quality and remove products with unduly short lifetimes from the market.
89.In writing to us DEFRA has signalled potential support for this approach saying that the Resources and Waste Strategy commits to exploring the role of guarantees and warranties for product durability:
We will consider options including mandatory disclosure of expected product lifetimes, mandatory extended warranties, and incorporating warranties into labelling, for example a five-year warranty label. In conjunction with industry and other stakeholders, we will explore reform to consumer rights law and eco-design legislation to make use of these systems where the market is not delivering the necessary outcomes.
90.DEFRA also told us that Eco-design for Energy-related products powers allow Government to mandate resource efficiency eco-design to drive the market to more durable and repairable products. Different products such as washing machines can be expected to last much longer than others. A report by the European Parliamentary Research Service found that the optimal way to enhance sustainable consumption and durability of products is for a mandatory guarantee equal to a product’s expected lifetime, with that lifetime calculated according to pre-defined technical standards. Though the report acknowledged the difficulties in implementing this and the cost to businesses, the approach taken in Finland of linking guarantee periods to expected product lifetimes (without making them the same) is supported by a number of researchers. It is also a specific recommendation of the European Parliament Policy Department for extension over the whole EU. They show how this would make products more durable, provide more protection and information to consumers, and build consumer trust about the products they are buying.
91.The ‘burden of proof’ when it comes to claiming guarantee is also important. In the UK, there is a ‘reversal of the burden of proof’ within the first six months i.e. that the seller must prove that an item was not defective before a guarantee is claimed. After this the evidence burden falls on consumers to prove a product was defective. Research has shown that:
In practice, this six-month period often means that the product is presumed to be faulty only within the first 6 months after purchase; after this, the consumer must prove the pre-existing defect, which is often complicated and requiring expert advice.
92.Portugal and France have extended this reversal of the burden of proof to two years meaning within this period the burden of proof falls on the producers or manufacturers. Finland again links the burden of proof to the expected product lifetime. The EU minimum will be increased from six months to one year from 2020.
93.Consumers have a low trust in the electronic market and the longevity of products, both new, and repaired. They lack the information to make informed choices about the balance between cost, quality and the lifetime of the products they are buying. To overcome this issue, we recommend that the Government require producers to label their electrical and electronic products outlining the product’s expected lifetime, including how long a device will receive software security upgrades. To enhance the label to be more informative, products that are particularly durable when compared to similar products in their categories should include a “durable” accreditation. This is a method undertaken in Austria.
94.Minister Pow indicated that the Government is looking into enhancing and extending the minimum guarantees on electronic products, including software. We support this proposal and urge the Government to bring this forward with the aim of removing electronics with unduly short lives from the market. The expected lifetime label must be linked to the minimum lifespan guarantee. Particular attention must be paid to where the burden of proof lies between consumers and producers.
95.As Ugo Vallauri of the charity The Restart project told us:
We have been progressively losing our right to tinker and repair the products that we already own and this has happened, in a way, silently. We have not really been fully aware that we were progressively losing all of this … This country has a wonderful tradition of engineering, and repair was at the heart of the UK but that was not the case anymore. We were losing our skills and true ownership of the things that we own… Repair links people, it creates value and it is an essential part of being human. Polling in the UK and in Europe and the United States shows that people overwhelmingly want to repair and they want the barriers to repair to be removed. That is a wildly popular agenda that unites people across the whole political spectrum. Repair jobs that can be created through repair are excellent, but the skills in the future for repair jobs are under serious threat.
96.Contributors to our inquiry have argued that making repair of electrical and electronic products easier is vital to reaching a circular economy and is intrinsically linked to making more durable products. For example, the Restart Project has estimated that over 1,000 community repair events logged in its online system have saved an estimated 17,864kg of electronic waste and an estimated 280,894kg CO2 emissions. The Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy commits to “taking on board consumer interest in the right to repair” including mandating the provision of spare parts and design for easy dis-assembly.
97.A number of barriers exist to the repair of electronics becoming mainstream including: the design of products, availability of spare parts and information; access to trusted professional repairers; and the cost and convenience of replacing smaller items of EEE compared to getting an item repaired and consumer preferences and attitudes not favouring repair. A balance needs striking between making it easier and cheaper for consumers to get their Electrical and Electronic products repaired, while ensuring health and safety, and balancing the interests of manufacturers.
Box 4: Universal Right to Repair
‘Right to Repair’ is a term used to denote a legal right for individuals to be able to repair the products they own. There are three pillars to the universal right to repair that will allow individuals ease of repair: (1) Products designed to be repairable (e.g. without need specialised tools, and not gluing or soldering parts together); (2) Access to repair guides and manuals; and (3) Access to spare parts.
Many US states have considered legislation for a ‘Right to Repair’244 and the EU’s Circularly Economy Action plan includes it. However the EU’s proposals have been criticised for allowing manufacturers to restrict access to manuals and spares. 245
98.As part of our inquiry we undertook an informal survey of repair groups and organisations. Over 500 organisations responded to our survey. They highlighted how often they are faced with products that are intentionally designed and manufactured to prevent repair, and the lack of access to spare parts and manuals.
99.The European Environment Agency states that there have been numerous documented cases of products designed to make repair not viable—for example sealed drums in washing machines or mobile phones with non-removable batteries or inkjet cartridges with a chip that prevents them being re-used. Concerns have been raised about repair being prevented or disincentivised by monopolistic practices in the tech industry that undercut the ability for third party businesses to undertake repairs. Ifixit highlighted products where parts are soldered and glued together and the use of unique “pentalobe screws” to prevent wide access for repair, with Apple laptops in particular ranking lower than those of most other companies. For example, the 2019 MacBookPro 16” is ranked one out of ten for repairability. Ugo Vallauri from the Restart Project argued that Apple was creating a monopoly over repair of its products, which allowed it to control the market. He suggested that the seemingly impressive progress that Apple was making in its sustainability initiatives did not balance the overall carbon and material footprint involved in manufacturing so many new products with limited repairability. He highlighted a number of allegations against Apple including:
Apple and Nokia’s refusal to supply original parts to independent workshops…caus[ing] products to fail or work less optimally following third party repair, examples include Apple’s ‘bricking’ of iPhones that had their home buttons replaced by third party technicians and Apple’s battery warning message that appears upon third party battery replacement.
100.To improve the ability of individuals to repair their products Ugo Vallauri said that there were:
…three pillars of a true right to repair that we would like to happen in legislation in the UK, as well as the rest of the world. They are, first…requiring in legislation that all manufacturers provide…access to spare parts…The second thing that ensures safe repairs can be done by everyone is access to the official repair manuals, so that products can be repaired using the best knowledge available, which will obviously be the one provided by the manufacturer. The third point that is a crucial pillar is that products should be designed to be repairable to begin with.
101.Though respondents to our survey highlighted that design issues (e.g. glued parts) were the biggest barrier to repair they said the thing that would most help overcome repair issues was access to repair manuals—perhaps reflecting a pragmatic approach:
Contributors were able to submit any suggestion. Our analysis of these highlighted some other common themes for actions that producers could take to make repair easier:
102.Professor Cooper argued that the UK Government should work with industry to encourage better maintenance of products through, for example, ensuring access to repair manuals for independent repairers and owners, and the availability of spare parts at reasonable cost. Another important factor within the design of products is that easily accessible tools can be used in repair.
103.The Restart Project argued that to help consumers choose more repairable products manufacturers could be required to state the repairability of a product in much the same way as they are currently required to state its energy efficiency. It said that France has adopted its own initial repairability score index, as part of its new waste-prevention law adopted in January 2020. From 2021 consumers in stores and online will be able to compare the repairability score of five categories of products: smartphones, washing machines, TVs, computers and lawn mowers—calculated by factoring in the availability and pricing of spare parts, as well as the ease of disassembly of a product. The Restart Project recommended that the UK Government should consider adopting a similar approach but be extended to other product categories relevant to the UK context.
104.Repairing a product tends to be the more costly option both for the users of electronics (compared to buying a new product) and for the E-waste collection industry (compared to recycling the materials). This is partly explained by manufacturers controlling the repair of their products and charging high prices, as well as the high labour and operational costs of repair. Many of those campaigning for a circular economy argued that repair activities need to be made cheaper and more competitive to prevent faulty goods being discarded because buying a new one is easier and cheaper than repair. The consumer group Which? has highlighted how the cost of fixing Apple phones can sometimes be as costly as buying a new alternative smart phone:
Smash the display on Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max, for example, and you can expect to pay £326 to get it fixed by the tech giant if it’s out of warranty. If the damage sustained by the iPhone comes under ‘other damage’ (faults not related to the display), that number could rise to a whopping £596.44. For the same price, you could buy a brand new Which? Best Buy smartphone and a Best Buy smartwatch.
105.Despite being a market leader in the UK, Apple were unwilling to appear before us to discuss issues related to product obsolescence, and practices that might make repair more difficult. They did respond in writing to our requests for evidence on their approach to sustainability and the challenges of repairing their products, but only after public pressure from us on the day of a product launch. Given the stated commitment of the company to sustainability, we were disappointed with the limited level of engagement with our inquiry.
106.In 2014, our predecessor Committee’s report on Growing a circular economy: Ending the throwaway society called for differential VAT rates based on life-cycle analysis of the environmental impact or recycled content of products, and tax allowances for businesses that repair goods or promote re-use. Many EU countries, such as Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Poland have a reduced charge on repair activities at six per cent. Reductions in rates of VAT on repairs could make it more economically attractive to opt for repair over buying a new replacement product. For example, along with many contributors to our inquiry, TechUK—the UK technology Industry trade bodies, has joined calls by circular economy campaigners for a reduction in VAT on repairs to counter the “perception that repair is expensive compared to the price of a new product.” It says that “a reduction in VAT on the labour for repair activities, as introduced by Sweden, could make it more economical to repair products out of warranty.” Some European countries are attempting to incentivise repair through other forms of tax reductions such as Sweden where 50 per cent of labour costs in repair are tax deductible and in Austria where labour costs of repair may become reimbursable. Green Alliance’s research has shown that the lost tax could be counteracted by the increased jobs, but also by raising taxes on other harmful activities. Sweden has done this with hazardous chemicals.
107.TechUK also argued that safety and intellectual property rights must be protected in policy action taken to promote repair. Its policy recommendations call on Government to:
a)Recognise the trusted status of the UK’s network of authorised repair networks and refurbishment / remanufacturing facilities.
b)Protect the intellectual property rights in the after-sales, maintenance and repair market, in particular with respect to license agreements and access to proprietary information.
c)Promote the safety risks of unauthorised repairs carried out without the necessary training.
d)Recognise that there is sometimes a trade-off between durability and repairability.
108.Some categories of products should only be repaired by a qualified repairer. The community safety organisation EEESafe submitted evidence on safety issues and said that a professional standard similar to Gas Safe needs to be established for the repairs of white goods such as washing machines, fridges and cookers. EEESafe say that the depth of knowledge needed to help prevent and identify faults in white goods is not independently verified by anyone at present. Martyn Allen from Electrical Safety First told us that:
We need a regulated system for repairers. At the moment it is the wild west in many cases. There are certain jobs that need lower-level skills, but there are certain complex examples that we mentioned at the very start that need special skills. We need to find a way of having an extended process where things can be repaired, but the people carrying out those repairs need to be competent for the task in hand, and also have accessible access to the components so that the repairs are done safely.
109.The UK has a long history of engineering, and the public wants to be able repair their products. When products are designed, durability and repairability should be key considerations. The Government must enshrine the right to repair in law, enforcing access to (1) repair manuals; (2) access to affordable spare parts for products; and (3) ability to repair products without repairers needing access to physical or software tools specifically designed to be a barrier to independent servicing or repair.
110.Technology companies, repair organisations and the UK Government should collaborate to ensure safety is ensured during the repair of electronics. This could be through creating professional standards, that will in turn drive more consumer trust. This collaboration should also look at the protection of intellectual property.
111.The Government should mandate that products be labelled with a repairability score, based on the products design, the availability and cost of spare parts, access and ease of use of repair manuals. This will incentivise companies to go beyond the minimum requirements already established. Companies with better repairability scores should be rewarded with a reduction in modulated fees for their extended producer responsibility scheme contributions.
112.Another proposal supported by industry is a reduction in VAT on repair services from the current standard rate. This is also supported by Professor Tim Cooper and is in place in a number of countries across the EU. The UK Government should encourage repairability through reducing VAT charged on the repair of electrical and electronic products.
113.Under the WEEE Regulations, Producer Compliance Schemes (PCs) are required to prioritise re-use of products that are no longer wanted by their original purchasers. However, rates of re-use have been low, estimated at 2.5 per cent in 2018. In other countries targets are increasingly being used as a method of increasing the re-use of EEE. The Flanders region of Belgium has instigated financial incentives for local municipalities meeting re-use targets. It reached a target of re-use of EEE of 5kg per inhabitant and has set a further target of 7kg to be achieved by 2022. Spain is the first EU country to introduce mandatory re-use targets. These range from three per cent of large appliances to four per cent of IT equipment in 2018. Wales has a ‘preparing for reuse’ target for municipal waste, however, this excludes WEEE. London set a policy objective in 2011 to increase repair and reuse capacity from 6,000 tonnes per year to 20,000 tonnes by 2015 and 30,000 by 2031.
114.The WEEE Scheme Forum said the Government could “implement mechanisms to encourage PCSs to favour re-use over recycling.” It suggested that could include applying a premium to re-use evidence so that a PCS could use evidence of re-use to offset part of its collection target evidence. The AATF forum in evidence to us said:
There must also be clearer incentives for reuse, both of parts and whole items. The need for WEEE evidence to meet regulatory targets has seen a decline in reuse as the ability to generate evidence from recycling is easier. This suggests that there is a strong need for a much clearer and more environmentally orientated guidance on the definition of waste from the point at which the first user seeks to replace or discard it.
115.There is a need for incentives at Local Authority Household Waste recycling centres (HWRC) that will help them to promote re-use and proper recycling:
The biggest barrier to realising the value in discarded electronics is the current system’s inability to organise careful collection and delivery to a facility that can effectively separate high value reusable or repairable products from those that must be recycled. Indeed, current systems render most electronics only suitable for recycling: the three foot fall onto the steel floor of a recycling bank destroys the reuse value of all but the most robust electricals, as does the practice of leaving them outside for collection exposed to damp and dirt.
116.Producers, local authorities and recyclers have little or no incentive to re-use products over recycling them. The Government must increase the incentives for re-use so that all parties benefit from further re-use, in particularly making re-use evidence worth more than recycling evidence.
117.Some countries set re-use targets for electronics, such as Spain and Belgium. The UK Government should set similar re-use targets for producer compliance schemes, with penalties levied when targets are missed. These targets must be set long term and ratchet over time to give the industry clarity and time to prepare.
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