As Canada’s electronic waste problem explodes, consumer and environmental advocates are pushing lawmakers for the right to repair their devices instead of buying new ones.
Research published by the University of Waterloo last week found that in 2020, Canadians generated close to one million tonnes of e-waste — appliances such as cellphones, computers, TVs and home appliances that are old, broken or unwanted. The amount of e-waste per person increased from 8.3 kilograms in 2000 to 25.3 kilos in 2020, and is expected to continue rising in the near future.
But rather than throw away devices that are only a few years old, some Canadian consumers want to be able to fix their electronics instead of replacing them.
“The right to repair is fundamentally about extending the useful life of the things we already have,” said Alissa Centivany, assistant professor at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University.
“Instead of having to throw something out and replace it with something new, we would be able to more easily fix things when they break, either ourselves or by taking it to an independent repair technician. This helps the environment by keeping things out of the dump and reducing the environmental harms generated through the production of new things.”
Fixing old or damaged devices often means going to the company that produced them. Right-to-repair advocates argue those companies have set up barriers that prevent people from successfully repairing devices on their own — things like special parts or software, for example, that are only available through the manufacturer.
To enshrine the right to repair in law, advocates are pressing for both legislation from the federal government and changes to Canada’s copyright law that would allow consumers to repair their devices. In a 2019 online survey by Innovative Research Group, 75 per cent of Canadians polled said they would support this kind of legislation.
In Budget 2023, the federal government announced it will work to implement a right to repair, aiming to make it easier and cheaper for Canadians to fix, rather than replace, their appliances and electronics. The government said consultations will begin this summer.
It’s cheaper to fix what we already have than it is to buy new. When devices are fixable, they are also more likely to be sold secondhand, Centivany noted. “Used options help budget-minded consumers. Healthy markets for used goods also apply downward pressure on the cost of new things because it increases market competition. The right to repair enhances affordability for everyone,” she said.
The federal and provincial governments need to clarify that manufacturers can’t use warranties, licences and other contracts to prevent consumers and third-party repair technicians from fixing the items they sell, Centivany said.
“There are other legal mechanisms that could be helpful as well, like eliminating tax on repair services and other incentives, but those are more fine-grained measures and what we need first are big, bold policies,” said Centivany.
The impediments to repair cut across all industries, and therefore, in terms of legal or policy solutions, there really isn’t a “silver bullet,” Centivany said. “In terms of relevant laws, copyright law, competition law and contract-based laws all play a role here.”
Centivany believes that from a public interest standpoint, there have to be some limits on manufacturers’ profit-seeking tactics, particularly when they are harmful to consumers, communities and the environment. She points to planned obsolescence — the practice of selling a product that rapidly goes out of date so that consumers have to buy the newer version — as one example.
“We need to find ways to shift manufacturers away from planned obsolescence and create incentives and requirements for ensuring the products they make are more durable. Replacing a smartphone every two years and a laptop every four years is simply not sustainable. We need to move beyond a ‘profit-at-all-cost’ mindset and recognize that reparability feeds important values like growth and innovation.”
Elizabeth Chamberlain is the director of sustainability for iFixit, an organization that provides consumers with free resources to repair their devices themselves. She sees the right to repair as beneficial not only to consumers but to the environment, too.
“The best way to prevent e-waste is to extend the lifespan of the stuff we’ve already got,” said Chamberlain. “Extending the lifespan of devices is the best thing we can do to slow down the incredible rate of consumption and waste, and repair is essential for that extension.”
Chamberlain told Canada’s National Observer that throwaway culture is wreaking havoc on the planet. Everyone should have the right to repair everything they own without restrictions from manufacturers.
“We are buying too much, demanding too many resources from our planet and throwing too much stuff away — especially when it comes to electronics. Mining and manufacturing electronics requires an incredible amount of raw material, toxic chemicals and water,” she said.
The federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change told Canada’s National Observer it is supporting ongoing work on value-retention processes (VRPs) in Canada. VRPs are activities that enable the completion of, or potentially extend, a product’s service life beyond what’s expected. These processes include reuse, repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing.
“By facilitating, for example, access to tools and spare parts, improving access to product knowledge and promoting better product design, ‘right to repair’ helps to address common barriers that hinder product life extension and, therefore, also supports other sustainable, related initiatives such as remanufacturing, refurbishment and reuse,” said Nicole Allen, ministry spokesperson.
Last month, the European Commission introduced new consumer rights for easy and attractive repairs to support the objectives of the European Green Deal by reducing waste.
The proposal will give rights to consumers to repair their goods when the legal guarantee expires and make it easier and more cost-effective to repair those goods instead of replacing them.