It’s time for NZ to rethink its approach to e-waste
In March 2021, the European Union (EU) passed groundbreaking legislation. It now requires companies that sell or manufacture electrical goods to provide right-to-repair capabilities for all televisions, displays, refrigerators, and hairdryers.
All retailers/manufacturers must sell goods that can be repaired for up to 10 years. That legislation is now advocating for further progress. It will enable consumers to receive more information about product lifespans and the availability of repair services, spare parts, repair manuals, premature obsolescence, overuse of greenwashing, and the right to repair.
The EU also proposes design mandates for energy efficiency, durability, repairability, upgradability, maintenance, reuse, and recycling.
Further, the legislation prioritises the right to repair across electronics and ICT. The legislation would even include a right to update old or obsolete software.
In June, Australia’s Productivity Commission released a Right to Repair draft report. It proposes that manufacturers must provide independent repairers and customers with access to repair tools, information, and spare parts.
The aim is to empower consumers to make more informed choices about products they buy and reduce the amount of electronic waste (e-waste) ending up in landfills too soon. Could it work in New Zealand?
The global e-waste problem
The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan states the EU recycles less than 40% of electronic waste. According to a 2020 article from RNZ, that number is a shocking 2% in New Zealand.
What if there was a way to extend the lifespan of products before they end up in the tip? Device repairability seems like a logical step.
The push for right to repair legislation grew so massive thanks, in part, to the controversy surrounding companies like Apple.
Until recently, Apple required all repairers to be authorised service providers. The company was staunch in its refusal to let any independent, non-authorised repair shop touch its products, let alone the average Joe-at-home. But things are changing.
While Apple did not provide a statement for this story, it pointed to the recent expansion of its Independent Repair Provider programme.
The programme means repair shops that are not Apple Authorised Service Providers (AASPs) now have the ability to access training, repair manuals and diagnostics, provided they have at least one Apple-certified technician who can repair devices. These tools enable the repair of Apple products that are out of warranty.
It’s a significant step towards loosening Apple’s iron grip on its repair processes, but it’s still not perfect.
Consumer’s Paul Smith says, “A person could go to the independent repair shop down the road and repair their device with a part that’s not necessarily Apple-stamped. But if their phone’s old and they could get another couple of years out of it - why should they pay the Apple premium?”
The Consumer Guarantees Act
While each manufacturer and reseller has different approaches to warranties, what is common to every product sold by a business in New Zealand is the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA).
Manufacturers and importers must guarantee spare parts and repair facilities are available, but they can opt out if they tell people that parts and repairs are limited or aren’t available.
Furthermore, this only applies to first-hand purchases of devices - it’s of no benefit to those who buy secondhand or refurbished devices.
So what can we do?
Consumer New Zealand has advocated for a product stewardship scheme, following hot on the heels of government chatter about a similar idea.
Smith says New Zealand has the support of the CGA and strong consumer legislation. But the more you look into it, the more evidence there is that the culture is all about replacement, not repair.
“Repair is seen as a second-class option - instead products are refunded or replaced. The problem with that is we’re generating a lot of broken products that should still be in use. That creates e-waste and in many cases, the waste isn’t being recycled, it’s being dumped.”
Smith thinks that offering repair isn’t going to destroy the electronics and tech industries - all of the importers and distributors that deal with manufacturers should be responsible for offering after-sales support and repair for the products they sell.
Of course, that raises more questions. In the case of devices and software, a battery will inevitably wear out. But how long should reasonable use last? It’s a difficult discussion, and Smith says there’s no definitive answer. But information is vital.
Consumer recently introduced repairability scores for mobile phones to help consumers purchase phones that can be repaired easily.
These scores are based on five criteria: whether repair documentation is available to independent repairers and/or consumers, how easy it is to disassemble the product, availability of spare parts, price of spare parts and any other criteria specific to the product type.
While these scores inform consumers, they still don’t address the much larger problem of e-waste.
Product stewardship is gaining momentum within advocacy groups, industry, and government. Stewardship encourages manufacturers to be responsible for making longer-lasting products because they would face higher charges for producing products with very short lifespans.
It also means sharing responsibility for end-of-life processes right down the chain - from the manufacturer and importer to the retailer and the end-user.
The mechanics of product stewardship can get quite complex, and there are still questions about how charges are applied and how to enforce stewardship, especially in a small country like New Zealand.
A spokesperson from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) says, “MfE officials are currently reviewing our waste and resource efficiency legislation (Waste Minimisation Act and Litter Act). This project will consider whether new provisions (such as ‘right to repair’) could be included in new legislation."
The spokesperson says the MfE is preparing the first group of regulations for priority products, planned for the second half of 2021. It welcomes feedback to help find the best way forward.
Coming full circle - the marketplace for refurbished goods
Another way to lengthen product lifecycles is to pass on goods to others who can repair and then onsell them.
Reebelo is a marketplace for refurbished tech that recently launched in New Zealand, following successful launches across Asia Pacific. The company backs the circular economy by refurbishing devices and offering a 12-month warranty.
Reebelo Australian country manager Gulrez Tyebji says, "Some manufactures make repairing older devices very expensive and difficult as they would much rather sell you a new gadget. However, the impact this is having on the planet is massive and is clearly an unsustainable practice.
“The responsible thing to do is make sure people have full control over the choice to either repair and keep using their devices or sell it to someone who can do that and onsell it to promote the circular economy."
Another scheme called RAD (Recycle A Device) also promotes the circular economy by encouraging high school students to refurbish laptops donated by businesses and consumers.
When Noel Leeming and TechCollect NZ teamed up to trial a free e-waste recycling programme, it was an effort to encourage Kiwis to drop off computers and peripherals, tablets and printers (mobile phones are covered by an existing Re:Mobile scheme).
The trial was small - it involved just 16 of Noel Leeming’s 72 stores nationwide. Despite its small scale, it was backed by tech giants including Canon, Dell, Dynabook, HP, Microsoft, and Toshiba.
The Warehouse Group chief sustainability officer David Bennatar noted that every New Zealander generates more than 21 kilograms of e-waste every year.
“The service aims to process as much material in New Zealand as possible; however, some components recovered will get processed overseas.”
Therein lies another complex issue - New Zealand still ships most of its waste and recycling overseas. It’s a reliance that could be minimised if consumers could repair their products rather than sending them to landfill.
Paul Smith adds, “When something becomes a waste, we might recycle parts of it. But what are we doing with that recycled parts? We're just sending them overseas and trusting that they will be put to good use. Waste needs to be useful before it reaches that stage.”
Waste not, want not
Legislation coming out of Europe, the United States and Australia are promising signs. New Zealand’s lack of action on reducing the impact of e-waste and similar right to repair initiatives is a black mark against the country and a waste problem that is rapidly growing.
Before the next broken television or mobile phone is tossed in a landfill somewhere in New Zealand, could it be repaired, refurbished, or donated?
E-waste and product lifecycle issues are not easy problems to solve, but the government, manufacturers, the supply chain and consumers must all ensure their products and devices last longer. Right to repair legislation is a crucial step towards solving the e-waste crisis.