Thursday

15th Nov 2018

Opinion

How the EU could give products a new lease of life

  • Many of our household products are not designed to make repair easy (Photo: Vilseskogen)

One of your possessions, be it your mobile phone or your coffee machine, has just broken down. You probably curse, then check the warranty, or even try to have it repaired. But you recognise that it is often cheaper to buy new than to repair. Economic logic takes over. You discard.

This situation is far from unique. It is being replicated every day many thousands of times across Europe. We are making, using and throwing things away at ever faster rates.

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  • The job potential in repair activities is huge. (Photo: Notat)

Today, waste of electrical and electronic equipment is growing at 3-5 percent per year. It is expected to hit 12 million tonnes before 2020 according to the European Commission .

The rare materials and resources used to make these products are often buried in the ground, or burnt, even though most of the parts still work and are perfectly usable.

This creates huge pressure on our ecosystems and our stockpile of natural resources. Consumers, especially the poorer ones, are losing out by buying cheap, low quality products which are planned to fail.

Manufacturers are moving out of Europe to countries with lower labour costs, because the profit margins of mass production are getting smaller and smaller. EU businesses can not compete in a race to the bottom.

Recycling is one solution. But why break something up when only one of the parts is defective? If something is broken, it should be fixed.

Job potential

The job potential in repair activities is huge. It is a labour-intensive service which requires both manpower and skills and which is difficult to send overseas, so we in the EU stand to benefit.

If products are repaired more often and therefore last longer, less wealthy households would have to spend less of their income on replacing everyday consumer goods that fail early.

What we need is a legal framework which creates a level playing field for the manufacturers, for independent commercial repair services and for re-use centres.

These regulations already exist for the automotive sector in the EU, so we should adapt them to fit other products such as household goods.

Another problem facing repair centres is that many of our household products are not designed to make repair easy. For example, most washing machines come with a sealed drum, meaning that if a problem emerges with the inner drum, it’s the entire drum assembly which needs to be removed.

We think the answer is to make better use of the Ecodesign Directive a tool which successfully sets information and design requirements for energy-using products.

The Commission should take action by identifying components most likely to fail and require that manufacturers make it easier to access them.

Manufacturers should also provide spare parts in sufficient quantities.

Remanufacturing

Remanufacturing a product goes one step further than repair. By disassembling a product and returning it to an ‘as-good-as-new’ state, it can be sold again on the market and therefore its lifetime is extended.

A study reports that remanufactured products cost 40-65 percent less to produce and are typically 30-40 percent cheaper for customers.

The United States is ahead of Europe and writing a success story in terms of developing a remanufacturing economy.

The industry is worth approximately USD 43 billion and provides 180,000 full-time jobs, with SMEs accounting for 36 percent of the employment. The value of these economic activities is increasing by 15 percent per annum and ranges from sectors like aerospace to consumer products and medical devices.

This is the success story that Europe needs to start writing as well to boost its economy, create new jobs, improve European companies' competitive position and reduce its ecological footprint.

Remanufacturing is currently working in Business-to-Business markets, but it can, and should be, scaled up to consumer products.

There are many benefits to this business model: remanufacturing these electronic appliances creates highly skilled employment in Europe and causes 15 times less greenhouse gas emissions than producing a new one.

For this to happen, there needs to be a legally-accepted definition of re-manufacturing and legislative barriers need to be removed.

Moving towards a circular economy must go beyond just recycling of materials at a product’s end-of-life.

Repairing and remanufacturing have the potential to deliver enormous economic, environmental and social benefits. Consumers stand to benefit too.

The Commission should help give our products a new lease of life. It is a matter of political will.

Pascal Durand is a French MEP from the Greens-EFA political group and Jo Leinen is a German MEP from the Socialists and Democrats political group

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