The EU has taken a small step towards cutting waste and greenhouse gases from the manufacturing of popular consumer goods, environmental groups said this week.

Manufacturers will be obliged to make several home appliances more easily repairable following an unprecedented decision by national representatives.

The measures are part of the EU’s laws aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of products known as ‘Ecodesign’, and are expected to enter into force from April 2021. They will apply to everyday products including lighting, displays, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges.

Green groups welcomed the news, saying that repairability standards can increase the useful life of products and save consumers money while reducing waste.

Here’s a summary of the main laws agreed last week in Brussels:

Commenting on the outcome of the vote, ECOS senior manager Chloe Fayole said it’s a step in the right direction. “People are demanding their right to repair the things they own because they’re tired of products that are designed to break prematurely,” she added.

However, companies are set to retain control of most repair operations. Most spare parts and manuals will only be made available to repair professionals authorised by manufacturers.

This may limit the scope and affordability of repair services, NGOs said. “When repair activities stay in the hands of a few firms, we’re missing an opportunity to make it more affordable and readily available,” said Stephane Arditi, a policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

In November, the two NGOs denounced strong pressure from industry lobby groups, which prompted the European Commission to water down the original proposals.

Manufacturers in the US and EU are against ambitious repairability standards, having argued before that allowing consumers and independent repair shops to carry out repair raises safety risks and intellectual property concerns.

This industry position has hampered repair by making it difficult or too expensive, market and policy experts said. According to several surveys, most consumers would like to fix their own products but end up buying a new unit because of increasing financial and logistical barriers to repair.

This may explain why when Apple temporarily lowered the price for iPhone battery replacements to $29 last year, it replaced about 11 million batteries against the average one to two million per year.

The company had previously admitted to slowing down older iPhones.

Facts and figures

  • The proportion of defective devices being replaced by consumers grew from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012 (source)
  • This may be costing German consumers €110 a month per person (source)
  • A long-lasting washing machine will generate over 20 years 1.1 tonnes less CO2 than a short-lived model. This analysis takes into account manufacturing, distribution, use and end-of-life treatment (source)
  • Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world (source)
  • Only 35% of electronic waste in the EU is collected and treated properly (source)
  • Illegal flows within the EU are estimated at 4.65 million tonnes in 2012 (source)

The right to repair in Europe

The right to repair movement gained prominence in Europe when groups like Coolproducts, a coalition of EU product policy experts led by ECOS and the EEB, joined thousands of independent repairers and repair café volunteers in demanding repairable and longer-lasting products.

But these local groups have long called for improved design as well as for spare parts and repair information to be made available to all.

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