A final CREACE report explores future scenarios of a repair society.
A Circular Economy is a pathway towards realising sustainable production and consumption. In this report, the repair of broken products as part of a future circular economy is explored. It is argued that in western societies repair is currently not the normal response to product breakage. However, increasing legislative efforts and grassroots movements are attempting to change that and make repair accessible, affordable and culturally acceptable. The question is what such a society – where repair is normalised – would be like. This report reflects the findings from the development of repair society scenarios and a visioning workshop with stakeholders.
Waste from electrical and electronic equipment (‘WEEE’ or ‘e-waste’) can be a potential source for spare parts, potentially with added benefits of avoided the environment impacts of producing new parts and in some cases saving repairers money (and maybe avoiding a lawsuit, if it means you know where your parts are coming from).
But how is this done in practice, and what are the barriers to upscaling harvesting of spares from WEEE?
We talked to a range of stakeholders in Sweden, Norway and California to compare experiences in harvesting spare parts from WEEE. The main findings are part of paper and presentation at the PLATE Conference May 25-28, 2021.
Some key takeaways:
Volumes are still low for spares from WEEE, but expected to grow. Harvesting is time sensitive (as products become obsolete, so do their spare parts), hibernation (i.e. that phone in your drawer) is a major barrier to supply.
It is a constant challenge to match supply of spares with the demand for spares. The most advanced organisations were actively seeking markets for spares they could harvest, rather than only responding to requests.
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws in the EU mean that producer responsibility organisations have a lot of influence on which recyclers and reuse organisations have access to the WEEE. At the same time, as we have found previously, having only recycling targets in these laws also mean there is little incentive for PROs to prioritise reuse and harvesting spares for reuse.
The process of harvesting requires skills and knowledge, requiring training. Most organisations did not see this as a barrier and were able to train staff.
The process involved manual labour, which in the Nordic context also came with high labour costs. We found repair and reuse organisations often involved a social or environmental aspect to their work, e.g. communicating about the environmental impact savings of reusing or partnering with social enterprises.
What’s the next step? We will expand this study to include all examples of reuse of spares (not just from waste) to further explore the different business models and how policies can help upscale harvesting of spares.
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Our things need to be repaired all the time. A shirt is missing a button; a chair leg gets wobbly; scratches and dents appear on our cars; children’s favorite toys often need to be glued, sewed, and reassembled multiple times. For those who have the skills (e.g., know how to sew), the tools (e.g., superglue, needle and thread), and the motivation (e.g., dislike throw-away culture, or maybe cannot afford to replace), repair is often part of everyday living.
The complexity of repair, the skills required, and the specialized nature of the tools needed – those factors can vary widely depending on the product. Also affecting whether repair is possible are things that are well beyond the control of the user: Was it designed to be durable? Are spare parts available? Is the warranty voided if they attempt to repair it themselves? Can broken modules be removed without damaging the entire device? Basic design decisions, such as the use of adhesives instead of fasteners, dictate the options that are available to users even before the need for repair has arisen.
Repair is often explored in the context of the infrastructure (e.g., supply of spare parts and repair expertise) and access (e.g., affordable price and ability to connect with repair expertise) that are available when a repair is needed (e.g. after the damage is done). However, these elements are only part of what determines the “ability to repair” something. By assuming a systems-perspective across the lifecycle of a product, it becomes clear that although the decision to repair-or-not-repair is fundamentally one that is made by the user, the factors that determine whether, and to what extent repair is even possible, are determined much earlier in the product’s lifecycle, while also being impacted in real-time by the conditions in the user-phase.
Compounding this challenge, is the fact that these factors are determined by individuals in the product’s value chain who are both spatially and temporally far away from the user. It is this broader “System of Repairability” that ultimately determines the extent of one’s “ability to repair” something, and thus it’s potential to be part of a circular economy (Figure 1).
There are three important elements to the System of Repairability: 1) The timing within the ownership period and product service-life, and the reason that repair may be undertaken (When:Timing of and Motivation for Repair); 2) The circumstances and responses undertaken (What: Conditions & Actions Taken); and 3) Who has the ability to influence and control the options that are available (Who: Locus of Control). As we will show, each of these three elements has a temporal dimension to it.
1. When: Timing of and Motivation for Repair
A product may need to be repaired multiple times, and in different ways, during its service life (period of ownership and use), and there are several primary reasons for repair to be undertaken: Damage may occur as a result of an unexpected event, such as impact or fall (e.g., a “Hazard” event); Damage may result from general, continuous wear-and-tear that occurs over time (e.g., “Fatigue”); or the repair may be undertaken in advance of any damage, in order to prevent or mitigate the risks associated with a hazard or fatigue situation, through regular or scheduled maintenance actions (e.g., “Scheduled”). An example of the latter is when a vehicle owner has an oil and filter change performed after being notified by an automated indicator light on the vehicle’s dashboard.
Temporal Dimension to Timing of and Motivation for Repair
Depending on the reason for the repair, the timing may be different: Repairs that are motivated by damage resulting from wear-and-tear typically occur relatively later in the product’s service life, i.e., multiple months, or even years after purchase. Depending on the product type, and how it is used, wear-and-tear is often assumed as minor damage that accumulates over time, such as the wearing down of tire treads, or the weakening of a zipper as it gets used. In contrast, a hazard event, such as a product being dropped and damaged, can occur at any time – whether a few moments after purchase, or multiple years later. While the nature of the likely damage may be predictable (e.g., a smartphone screen crack), the time at which the repair is needed is unpredictable. Finally, in theory, scheduled maintenance and repair activities should occur at regular intervals that are anticipated by both the owner and the producer, such as vehicle oil changes, virus scans in electronic devices, and even the seasonal removal of dead leaves from rooftop gutters.
2. What: Conditions and Actions Taken
The product’s owner is central to the decision to act to repair a product, and each repair action will depend on the specific conditions and context of the product owner: How risk-averse are they? Can they afford the repair? How emotionally attached (e.g., motivated) is the consumer to the product? Is the damaged product ‘essential’ to them, and what alternatives are available? Can they access the necessary skills, tools, expertise, and parts when they need them? Is there newer models released that pulls the consumer towards replacement?
Often not mentioned in the context of repair, the designer, manufacturer, and distributor also play critical roles in this System of Repairability. Product design decisions determine the extent to which a product can be repaired and returned to functionality. The durability of various parts and components, particularly those that are most likely to suffer a hazard event, can determine whether, and the extent of damage that may occur. The use of adhesives to connect components often means that these components cannot be deconstructed to allow for repair, and thus ensures that damage to one component determines the end-of-life of the entire product. The use of proprietary and/or specialized tools in the construction of the product can limit who is able to perform any repair work; in some cases, these design controls impose constraints on repair options, limiting the sharing of tools, instructions, and product specifications to a certified and controlled subset of the manufacturer’s value chain, such as a ‘certified repairer’. Thus, design and manufacturing decisions often dictate whether repair is technically possible, and also whether a repair is viable, from financial, legal, and value perspectives.
The nature of repair actions that are undertaken also depend on the options that are predetermined by decisions made by the manufacturer and the distribution network. This includes considerations such as the cost, existence, appropriate coverage, and duration of the product warranty; the availability and cost of necessary spare parts; the compatibility of upgrade software with older versions of the product; and even the perceived legal implications of having a repair performed by a service provider outside of an approved network (e.g., voiding of warranty).
Temporal Dimensions to Conditions and Actions Taken
The passage of time can affect the product, product-system, and product owner’s conditions and possible actions, and this is typically related to one of two themes: 1) The time-distance from the time of the product purchase; and 2), The time-distance from the model release date. The time-distance (amount of time) from the time of the product purchase may impact the warranty coverage. If the product is under warranty when the repair is needed, decisions made previously regarding product design and warranty coverage can greatly influence whether and what form of repair is undertaken. If the product is no longer under warranty, the price of repair may become increasingly relevant, as well as the owner’s ability to access the skills, tools, spare parts, and/or independent repairer, since the manufacturer no longer takes responsibility for the repair outcome.
The time-distance from the model release date influences the availability of necessities (i.e., spares, repair information and tools) needed to perform the repair. As time passes, manufacturers may cease to produce the spare parts required for older models. At the same time, the longer a product model has been on the market, the greater the chance that repair manuals and information have been made available, “leaked” or developed by a third party organization.
3. Who: Locus of Control
In the pursuit of inclusive and circular economies, the importance of repair is being quickly realized and advanced. However, there are varying degrees to which individuals feel empowered and in control of their ability to repair. Locus of control refers to the degree that individuals feel empowered to act to influence something. In the context of repair, individuals with an internal local of control may tend to feel a greater sense of control over their own decision to repair or not repair; Individuals with an external locus of control may feel that external forces, including their personal conditions as well as the System of Repairability, may determine what options are available (e.g., traditional product design typically assumed that the decision to repair rests with the future product owner, and is therefore beyond what the product designer could or should personally influence). These mindsets, combined with views about what repair entails, who has the ability to influence the repair system, and who is responsible, may limit our ability to scale repair in a meaningful way. Figure 2 describes the narrower understanding of the repair scenario, in which the repair decision is often inappropriately simplified to a decision made by the internally-focused product owner, alone.
However, from the previous discussion, it is apparent that an expanded view of the repair scenario that acknowledges the other actors within the proposed System of Repairability (product designers, OEMs, distributors, and product owners), is needed to truly appreciate that the control afforded to product owners is, in fact, quite limited. From Figure 3, this expanded view of the product repair scenario clearly demonstrates the influence, and thus the need for greater design and manufacturer accountability for decisions that negatively impact the System of Repairability.
Temporal Dimension to Locus of Control
The System of Repairability implies a product lifecycle perspective, within which the locus of control exists in two forms: fixed conditions, once made are effectively irreversible; and variable conditions that may be flexible or are changeable over time. For manufacturers, fixed decisions typically include product development, design, manufacturing, and supply chain factors, whereas variable decisions (over which there is on-going influence and control) may include how access to necessities is provided, details and warranty provisions, pricing of repair services, the provision of updates to software, and how products and services are marketed to consumers. For consumers, fixed decisions include the point-of-purchase (assuming no return), and whether repairability is a relevant consideration for the purchase decision. After purchase, the consumer arguably retains control over the condition of the product, including whether appropriate maintenance is conducted, as well as willingness to spend time and money getting something repaired.
Circular economy is built-upon a comprehensive understanding of product lifecycles, and the potential to retain products and their inherent value within economic systems, for longer. In order to meaningfully pursue this vision of scaled repair within a circular economy, the expanded view presented in Figure 3 provides a starting point to identify opportunities for meaningful policy intervention to advance the effectiveness of the System of Repairability.
In both the EU and the U.S., policymakers are attempting to increase the amount of repairs made, through for example the introduction of repair requirements under the EU Ecodesign Directive, as well as proposed U.S. Right to Repair-bills. In our latest CREACE publication we mapped the current policy landscape for repair, focusing on the key repair stakeholders and asking: what is hindering these stakeholders’ ability and willingness to participate in repair, and what are the solutions in sight to these impediments?
In terms of current barriers, our review revealed a wide range of fundamental obstacles to both supply and demand of repair, including Intellectual Property, Consumer, Contract, Tax and Chemical laws, along with issues of design, consumer perceptions and markets. Independent repairers and DIYs were impacted the most, particularly by barriers erected by manufacturers to prevent consumers from turning to anyone other than the manufacturer and their authorized network, citing concerns over issues with third-party quality, safety and security issues and, ultimately, brand-risk.
Proposed and currently implemented solutions are as diverse as the barriers, and the majority seeks to alleviate barriers for independent repairers and consumers by, for example, introducing repair exceptions to intellectual property rights and mandate manufacturers to make spare parts and information available outside of their authorized network.
By the time we had finalized our comprehensive overview of the repair landscape, we had more questions than when we started our work – as should be the case with research! Nevertheless, the overview provided us with several insights, both regarding the current state and the future of repair. Below, we share our four key insights from the paper.
1)The goal with the current repair upscale efforts can differ. In the EU, the main motivator is waste prevention and the realization of a Circular Economy, while in the U.S. the motivator is the liberalization of the aftermarket and consumer ownership rights. Although these goals might not seem so different, they produce different outcomes. An upscale of repair activities motivated by enforcement of consumer ownership rights is achieved once all consumers are given the opportunity to engage in repair activities. In contrast, an upscale motivated by environmental protection and the realization of a CE requires more extensive interventions to create a wider demand, supply, and infrastructure for repair to realize as many repair opportunities as possible. Opening up competition on the aftermarket is believed to provide consumers with enhanced repair options. However, increased price-based competition could make repairers “cut corners” in terms of quality and safety. Such issues with repair services would not only lead to wasted resources, but also a potential confidence crisis among consumers.
For reasons of social, economic and environmental sustainability, we suggest that the ultimate goal should be to realize a “Repair Society” where repair is normalized, as part of a larger, realized Circular Economy, where an optimized level of repairs is taking place (i.e., where all repairs that are desirable from an economic and environmental perspective are conducted).
2)The process for upscaling repair activities is not known. This is connected to the first insight on the discrepancies in the goal behind repair efforts, meaning that the plethora of solutions we identified are not coordinated under a common umbrella, or agreed upon goal or pathway. In response to this gap, we developed a first systematic approach to a market transformation, which we refer to as “The Repair Society Framework”.
Based on the identified barrier and solutions, the Framework shows how the upscale process consist of three pillars:
Infrastructure and Systems, e.g., access to spares, information and tools, and legalities.
Business & Industry, e.g., cost of spares and labour, and risks due to legal obligations and uncertainties.
Market and Culture, e.g., consumer preferences and knowledge and information on repair options
The gradual approach to the ascent towards a Repair Society is illustrated in Figure 2 by the scales (low-high) and the coiling arrow, sweeping from pillar to pillar.
3)Repair market governance is currently mostly centralised, meaning that manufacturers are the main decision-makers regarding what is repairable, how and where repair is offered, and at what price. This can be seen in how the barriers to repair are mostly hindering non-OEM repairs. The new policy proposals (the solutions) challenge this governance and seek to push the state toward more distributive governance, where all stakeholders are able to participate in repair and the consumer chooses who to bring their broken device to. An example of such a repair market governance can be seen for automobiles, where car owners can have their car serviced and repaired at the facility of their choice. Repair market governance can be depicted as a span between these two extremes.
The U.S. approach through the Right to Repair-bills includes alleviation of barriers not only to independent repairer, but also DIY, making them aspirationally more distributive. The EU, on the other hand, have excluded DIYs from the Ecodesign requirements, making them slightly more centralized.
These two governance structures create vastly different repair market conditions and, overall, it is uncertain whether the EU and U.S. policymakers have fully considered the implications of the chosen governance structure.
4)There are different pathways to a repair society. The Repair Society Framework and Governance Structure spans go together into the Repair Society Governance Matrix, showing how the upscale of repair activities can take two different routes to a repair society, depending on governance.
Under centralized governance, OEMs would be responsible for increasing repair. This requires an ascent following the blue arrow (see Figure 3) presumably implying a need for legislation to push some OEMs to effectively assume this responsibility. On the other hand, under distributive governance, the ascent first requires a horizontal movement on the span, given that the current governance is primarily centralized, before the vertical ascent can begin (see two red arrows in Figure 3). This implies, for example, reconsiderations of how intellectual property laws are interpreted and quality assurance systems. After that, the ascent up to a repair society implies enabling and promoting all commercial, as well as non-commercial, repair actors.
Moving forward, we see the need for a more informed, strategic and harmonized approach to the upscale of repair. Currently, certain U.S. and EU states, such as California and France, are leading the charge in the development of innovative ways to upscale repair activities, while other states remain inactive on the issue. The creation of repair laws that are uniform, aligned, and appropriately scoped (such as in the nature and extent of the obligations for OEMS to supply spares, tools and information, outside of their authorized network), would reduce uncertainties and strengthen market predictability – which is in everyone’s interests.
Efforts to upscale repair activities can be seen across the globe. “Right to Repair” bills that obligate manufacturers of consumer electronics to make available parts, tools, and information needed for repair, continue to be introduced in the US, Canada and Australia. In the EU, the latest Ecodesign regulations contained similar requirements for OEMs, and several member states are introducing other legal mechanisms to combat product obsolescence and other efforts to make repair more financially feasible (i.e., lowering taxes on repair services – see our earlier report on such examples in the Swedish context.).
As these efforts move forward, two aspects have become increasingly important: first, the representation and influence of key stakeholder perspectives; and second, clarity regarding the end-goal of repair upscale initiatives. To avoid future unintended consequences, we must seek to understand more fully, the possible future states and the implications of innovation, and we must engage all relevant stakeholders in the development of this vision for upscaled repair.
In a Circular Economy, a “CE Repair Society” constitutes the end-goal with regards to repair. Here, an optimized level of repairs are taking place (i.e., all repairs that are desirable from an economic and environmental perspective are conducted) in a system that accommodates key social elements (i.e., cost-effectiveness and accessibility).
To distinguish the key features of such a society, we drew from literature on barriers to repair, cultures (past and present) that emphasize repair, and models of alternative consumption. To understand and evaluate these findings comprehensively (i.e., from a systems-perspective), we developed the Repair Society Framework.
This framework consists of the micro-level (i.e., the individual’s experience of repair), meso-level; (i.e., infrastructure, business, and culture), and macro-level (i.e., overarching economic systems and culture). By organizing our findings into this Framework, the key features of a CE Repair Society began to emerge. Key elements of a CE Repair Society at the micro-level ranged from individuals’ perception of brokenness as merely temporary (vs. final), functionality as existing on a span (vs. a binary “functioning” or “not functioning” status), and a commitment to care for one’s belongings as a way to avoid waste impacts and preserve value. At the meso-level, the organization of repair can be an entrepreneurial business venture, or an innovative initiative to either bring a device back to working-order, or to create something new. At the highest macro-level it was clear that the current notion of “progress” as a function of accelerating growth must be redefined, and the role of technology and material objects are economic tools, reassessed.
Engaging relevant stakeholders in this process, and in the development of an end-goal of repair upscale, is critical. In addition to further exploring and validating our findings on key features of a repair society, we invite feedback on the proposed Repair Society Framework, and the implications for feasibly achieving this goal given current cultural, infrastructure, and regulatory conditions.
Current extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes have led to more material and energy recovery from waste streams, but they do not provide incentives for reaching the higher levels of the waste management hierarchy; e.g. the design of products that have a long lifespan, are easy to repair, or promoting re-use practices. While EPR should, in theory, give incentives for ecodesign, these incentives become difficult in the practical implementation through collective schemes that do not reward ecodesign. Though reuse is mentioned in EPR legislation, there are only mandatory targets for recycling.
Nevertheless, many actors Europe are promoting re-use schemes even in the absence of legal drivers. A recent CREACE study based on interviews looked at barriers and drivers for reuse of white goods. One finding was that current EPR systems can pose a barrier for reuse. They tend to focus on recycling, and fail to explicitly state targets for reuse, which results in infrastructure and incentives primarily organized for recycling. This focus on recycling explains why end-of-life products may be subject to rough transport and exposure to weather, which then reduce re-use potential.
The report also finds it can be costly to operate two separate material streams for reuse versus recycling. The study was presented in the paper ‘Legal and organisational issues when connecting resource flows and actors: re-use and producer responsibility schemes for white goods’, at the IS4CE2020 Conference of the International Society for the Circular Economy, Exeter.
If you are interested in the study, contact Carl Dalhammar: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We often hear about the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – from the simple version of the waste hierarchy (1).
Sometimes there’s mention of additional Rs like refuse, repurpose, repair, refurbish, remanufacture and recover. Many of these additional Rs actually unpack non-waste “reduce” or “prevention” opportunities, and give insight into the particular strategies for preventing products and their components from becoming waste, for as long as possible, in the first place. The need to focus on such prevention strategies is a key part of moving up the hierarchy to retain value for as long as possible in a circular economy (2).
There is a need to be clear about what we mean when talking about or referring to these activities; otherwise they can get confusing and even misleading. Take the terms recycling and recovery, for example. According the EU definition, recycling refers to material recovery, and does not include processes that only recover energy (e.g. waste-to-energy). However, when countries communicate about diverting waste from landfill, sometimes it is automatically assumed that this means recycling. That is how Sweden became known for recycling 99% of its waste, when in fact the term recycling was not correct: A large percentage of that material waste is actually incinerated for energy recovery.
Other key CE terms can also be sources of confusion or overlapping meanings. For example, refurbishment processes cover a range of activities, from simple to extensive. There are major differences in the cost, energy requirement, emissions and waste generation, as well as the value (e.g. price) associated with the refurbished product. Refurbishment could happen in the garage of an individual; comprehensive refurbishment refers to refurbishment that takes place in controlled industrial settings, to meet specified performance standards. Another key term to define is remanufacturing. Unlike many of the other Rs, remanufacturing is not about product life-extension. Through the remanufacturing process, the product is completely disaggregated or deconstructed into its constituent parts; and when these parts are later integrated into assembly, the result is an entirely different product. The full new service life of the ‘reman’ product is ensured by rigorous testing and performance standards that require the reman product to meet or exceed the performance and quality specifications of a current new version of the same type of product. If it doesn’t meet these standards, then it is not remanufacturing.
Again, however, a lack of clear understanding and definitions for refurbishment and remanufacturing has led to substantial trade barriers that increase cost and operational requirements for remanufacturers worldwide. For example, many countries are concerned about the ‘dumping’ of wastes disguised as refurbished or remanufactured export goods, and impose restrictions or prohibitive requirements (e.g. fees, paperwork, additional inspections) on these imported goods. These measures effectively reduce the competitiveness of “circular goods” in the marketplace, relative to ‘new’ ones.
In the table below you can see the CREACE project’s working definitions of key terms distinguishing these CE strategies.
Even repair cafes, which have largely had to cancel community events, have switched to online events. Such events have also been the result of collaboration between volunteer repair organisations in Europe and the US, with participants from all over the world, with a typical event attracting over 30 volunteer repairers. A common item needing repair advice at the event? Sewing machines breaking down due to increase use in sewing (often masks) during the pandemic.
So a repair society gets a boost in times of crisis, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a better reason for it? The next question: can the momentum for repair be maintained (or even grow) after the crisis subsides? We are working on that!
CREACE project researchers Dr. Carl Dalhammar and Dr. Jessika Luth Richter worked with Master’s students at the IIIEE to investigate the state of the repair sector in Sweden and policies that could further promote repair.
This research in this report investigates policies for repair across the EU, highlighting some of the more ambitious and innovative approaches stimulating Circular Economy strategies like repair. Policies examined range from the high level Circular Economy Bill in Scotland to specific consumer laws and repair certification in France, warranty laws in Finland and municipal policies in Flanders. The report considers what can be learned from these policies and initiatives that can be relevant for other national contexts, including Sweden.
Sweden is often considered a leader when it comes to recycling, particularly of electronic product and electrical equipment waste. However, it is not seen as a leader when it comes to reuse and repair of these same products. The research presented in this report includes and interview study of Swedish repair organisations finding their perceptions about drivers and barriers for repair, and possible policies that could further promote repair. The low cost of new products was a significant barrier to making repair competitive in a high labour cost context. Design of products was also seen as a barrier needing to be addressed by policy. Interestingly, many repairers interviewed felt their own business had enough customers and some were reluctant to promote expansion of the repair sector if it meant more competition in their market.
The Swedish government has been among the first to deploy a new policy to stimulate more repair – a tax reduction for repairs of certain products. This report explored the impact of this tax cut policy, finding that while repairers of some products noticed an increase in repair, others did not. It was noted that the tax reductions were often small in relation to the product purchase price or the total cost of repair and therefore its impact could expected to be limited for many products and in the context of the many other barriers to repair.
Overall, the report gives a good overview of the state of repair policies in the EU, the repair sector in Sweden, and suggestions for moving forward with policies for repair.
The CREACE project has started! The overall aim of the project is to enable Swedish leadership in a circular economy, via repair, by amassing knowledge from around the world about the best policies and conditions for optimising repair systems. The project partners and advisors consist of research universities (Lund and Virginia Tech) as well as municipalities and municipal organisation (Lund and Avfall Sverige) and repair business actors (GIAB, El Kretsen, iFixit). The focus of empirical cases is on consumer electronics and appliances in the EU and U.S. Check this site for updates of the project activities!