Last Word

Building a culture of repair

The time is Right to Repair, but it requires policies and programs that acknowledge the barriers and opportunities to making it work, writes John Gertsakis, Adjunct Professor at UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures.

If Australia is serious about waste avoidance and the practical implementation of circular economy principles, we need to move up the waste management hierarchy with genuine conviction and authenticity of action.

John Gertsakis

Of course, we need to recycle more, we need cleaner streams of recovered materials and we need resilient end-markets for the secondary materials, but we urgently need heavy-lifting on product durability, repairability and re-usability.

These interventions are some of the ‘first responders when it comes to waste avoidance and keeping products and materials circulating in the economy.

In simple terms, the value and role of durability, reuse and repair in several product categories needs to be elevated, enabled and supported in order to create more circular patterns of production and consumption.

From appliances, IT equipment, furniture and apparel, through to vehicles and agricultural equipment, there is significant scope and opportunity to extend product life through design for durability, reuse and repair.

And we know, this is not always straightforward but the imperative is essential, and those progressive manufacturers, brands and retailers who innovate and respond to consumer expectations will show how responsible prosperity can be achieved.

There is no doubt that the appetite for widespread repair action is growing.

Repair cafés are spawning nationwide, charities continue to make second-life products and clothing affordable and accessible, and some business associations like the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association strongly advocate for laws that require car manufacturers to share mechanical service information and software with the independent auto repair sector on fair and reasonable terms.

The momentum behind greater repair activity is building, locally, nationally and globally.

Indeed, Australia is at the front-end of history when it comes ‘waste’ policy reforms and how we transform the numerous suite of actions that seek to meet the ambitious targets in the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

Durability, repairability and re-usability are more than ‘nice to have’ type measures; they represent a potent set of strategies that are increasingly demanded by consumers and the general public.

Fortuitously, the Review of the Product Stewardship Act recommendations clearly identified the need to “broaden the objects of the Act to include product design improvements related to durability, reparability, re-usability and recyclability.”

The government supports this recommendation, and it reflects smarter thinking about developing product stewardship schemes that address the full product life cycle.

Globally, there has been a groundswell of support from consumers, repairers, environmentalists and designers for a ‘Right to Repair.’

The US and EU have already introduced ‘Right to Repair’ schemes into their laws.

France has recently introduced a Repairability Index which requires manufactures to place a star rating reflecting the repairability of their products.

While Australia does not have ‘Right to Repair’ legislation, the Australian Government has asked the Productivity Commission to inquire into whether Australian consumers need a ‘Right to Repair’ their consumer electronics and other manufactured durables.

The Productivity Commission’s Issues Paper released 7 December 2020, highlighted the focus of their inquiry: whether Australian consumers have the ability to repair faulty goods and to access repair services at a competitive price?

Importantly, the environmental considerations of consumer’s inability to repair is also being considered by the Productivity Commission, particularly the arrangements for preventing planned product obsolescence and the generation of e-waste.

The Productivity Commission received 140 submissions in response to the Right to Repair issues paper from diverse groups, associations, companies and individuals, and a draft report is due this month.

The inquiry represents a timely opportunity for individuals, brands, retailers and NGOs to share their views and constructive solutions as a contribution to maximising safe and cost effective repair action in Australia.

The time is Right to Repair, but it requires policies and programs that acknowledge the barriers and opportunities to making it work as a waste avoidance and reduction strategy. And we mustn’t overlook the social and cultural dimension.

Repair, be it DIY at repair cafes, or through independent repair businesses or manufacturers, is just as much about empowering consumers to take control of the products they purchase and own, as it is about waste reduction and sustainable materials consumption.

A National Waste Policy Action Plan that can genuinely address product durability, repairability and re-usability, is a plan that shows we are serious about waste avoidance, while also meeting community expectations about the goods we use every day in all spheres of life.

Making things last should be an uncomplicated way of contributing to circular outcomes, but it needs smarter design, progressive manufacturers, and policy settings that drive change.

John Gertsakis is adjunct professor at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, co-founder of the Ewaste Watch Institute and a director of the newly formed Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence.

Lead image photographer: Cesar Carlevarino

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