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Deep dive: Reviving repair culture

Benjamin Restle
May 30, 2024

We generate so much e-waste per year that we could easily fill enough garbage trucks to circle the globe. In this episode we learn about innovative solutions to our growing e-waste problem, the EU's new right-to-repair legislation, and how this shift is challenging our throwaway mindset. Can we fix our way to a more sustainable future?



Rüdiger Kühr, professor and senior manager of the UN’s Sustainable Cycles Programme  

Ian Williams, professor of applied environmental science at the University of Southampton (UK) 

Stefan Schridde, economist who runs Berlin’s Murkseum 

Thomas Opsomer, repair policy engineer at iFixit 

Rene Rapsi, a German member of the European Parliament, who’s campaigned extensively for EU right to repair legislation. 

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It’s a weekday evening at a Berlin Repair café. Once a month, tech hobbyists meet here to help people fix broken household appliances like toasters and juicers, or electronic equipment like hi-fi amplifiers, CD players and so on.

Anyone can drop in, it’s free of charge.

The main idea behind repair meetups like these is to extend the lifespan of electrical and electronic equipment.

So it doesn’t end up as e-waste.

In 2022, the world generated a record 62 billion kilograms of the stuff, according to the UN’s 2024 global E-waste Monitor.

An abstract figure, sure. But imagine this: The UN says that’s enough e-waste to fill enough garbage trucks to circumnavigate the entire planet!

Europe is the biggest producer of e-waste per capita. But also a leader in terms of collection and recycling.

Rüdiger Kühr: “If we compare Europe globally speaking, with many other parts of the world, Europe is a forerunner when it comes to recycling and collection as such. But on average, we are still below 50% of all e-waste generated what is collected and properly recycled. So it shows there's enormous room for improvement here.”

That’s Professor Rüdiger Kühr, one of the report’s lead authors, and a senior manager of the UN’s Sustainable Cycles Programme focused on sustainable production, consumption and disposal.

The problem is that since 2010, the amount of e-waste has been growing by about 2 billion kilograms every year. And most isn't properly collected and recycled.

Much ends up on unregulated, informal scrapyards in low-income countries.

Rüdiger Kühr: “It's around 5 million tons of e-waste, classified partly as reusable, shipped every year, uh, to the Southern hemisphere from the Northern hemisphere. And as I said, it's causing a lot of issues there.”

Workers break apart old smartphones, computers and television sets by hand and burn cables to extract valuable resources like copper and gold.

But that comes at a cost.

E-waste contains hazardous heavy metals like mercury and lead, and toxic flame retardants.

They pose major health risks to workers and poison the environment, as Ian Williams explains. He’s a professor of applied environmental science at England’s of University of Southampton.

Ian Williams: “In, um, places like Lagos, for example, you have perhaps a square mile or more of just utterly contaminated land where there's nothing but e-waste accrued, basic e-waste recycling going on by informal recyclers, which is utterly destroyed. The landscape and is giving people horrendous health problems.”

Back at the Berlin repair café, someone has brought in a broken sewing machine.

Mauricio, one of the volunteers here, is leaning over the large heavy machine, peering inside.

Its lid has been removed.

He’s an expert in all things sowing machines.

Mauricio: “Then the, the selector is so, so strongly, uh, blocked by old, uh, oil or not, the proper oil that you cannot feel, uh, you cannot move it freely.

So that means we need to disassemble the whole thing, disable the access, clean it, put it back again, and then, uh, most probably it will work.”

This isn’t a new model. Far from it. But that might actually be an advantage.

Mauricio: “Well, I can imagine that this is at least 30 or 40 years old. Probably are actually the ones that are made to be repaired. So you can see the inside is almost no plastic. Everything is metal is quite, quite heavy. But this is also so what is seen as a disadvantage is actually an advantage in terms of the robustness of the whole mechanism and the issues that you may have here.”

He says in his experience, newer machines are often much harder to repair.

Mauricio: ”In the new machines is extremely difficult to open them and to find the places where you have to, for example, to put oil. So these machines are made like not to be open easily. And if you cannot open, of course you cannot repair.”

That’s something activists like Stefan Schridde have been criticizing for years. An economist by training, Schridde runs a little Berlin exhibition space showcasing electrical and electric devices that he says have been built to fail. Or are impossible to repair.

It’s aptly named “Murkseum” – which roughly translates to “Botch museum.”

He gives a little tour. And begins by pointing out a black Senseo coffee maker that’s almost impossible fix:

Stefan Schridde: “And then you have to break the bottom of the machine because you find no screws, nothing in there. There's just some clips, and if you want to open it to repair it, you have to break the bottom out. So you have to destroy the machine. So the way they build it is just to intend to prevent the people to repair the product.”

His exhibition space is full of items just like this: practically unfixable hand-held mixers, faulty printers and much more.

Most of us have probably encountered such devices. Be that electric toothbrushes where replacing a worn out battery is too complicated and costly to make sense….

…so we throw it out and buy a new one.

Or dishwashers that are too expensive to fix so we replace them. 

There are countless other examples: Smartphones with glued-in batteries that invariably degrade as the years go by – though manufacturers make battery replacements complicated and costly. Headphones with flimsy rubber cables bound to break – with no repair options available.

And so on, and so forth….

Professor Ian Williams encountered exactly such a problem not too long ago. When he tried getting his broken dishwasher fixed, buying a replacement turned out to be the only viable option:

Ian Williams: “We simply couldn't get it fixed. Um, we, uh, we couldn't get the parts. And even if we had been able to get the parts, the cost of getting a repair person to do it was extraordinarily prohibitive. It was more than miles, more than buying a new one.”

It’s a very common problem.

Ian Williams: “I think most people will be aware that, um, in recent years, uh, manufacturers have deliberately built products that, um, are designed for replacement, not repair. Um, and of course, they've also encouraged more rapid replacement by putting inbuilt obsolescence into the equipment. So software that slows down over time making life very difficult, or individual components that are kind of not made to a very high standard because, um, uh, they're relatively cheap and they just need to suit the particular purpose. But as soon as they break, you can't do anything about it. So you end up having to replace an entire item because a small component is gone.”

While some devices are too costly or complicated to fix, others are designed with inbuilt repair barriers.

Thomas Opsomer: “So one of the companies that we often criticize is Apple. Not because they make products which would be completely irreparable in themselves, although some of their products are, but because even those products that are repairable can actually only be repaired within their own ecosystem.”

That’s Thomas Opsomer of iFixit, a company that publishes repair manuals, sells matching tools and champions the right to repair.

Thomas Opsomer: “So they have a very protective stance where only under certain circumstances can you buy parts and so on and so forth. One of the typical issues that we often criticize is so-called parts pairing, where a part is sort of coupled with the device, and if you switch out a genuine parts, it will no longer work.”

Parts pairing, simply put, is a software feature that detects whether original or third-party replacement parts have been installed.

When third-party components are installed, the software causes problems, or the components don’t work properly.

And that means consumers are forced to get devices fixed by Apple’s expensive in-house repair service, or equally expensive authorized Apple dealers.

Apple has defended the practice saying only genuine parts will guarantee its phones will function properly. And says third-party components could also present a security risk.

Apple, incidentally, isn’t the only company accused of parts pairing.

Professor KÜHR says complicating repairs may have another reason:

Rüdiger Kühr: “Some especially prominent brands are trying to avoid repair or easy repair, um, because they want to control the repair business themselves and take also the margins themselves out of this.”

Other, much more mundane repair barriers exist as well:

Thomas Opsomer: “There are other companies that are maybe less visible as brands, but that often make products which are even worse, which can be physically unrepairable in that it takes half an hour of heat to actually be able to open up the device, and then with a very high likelihood of breaking it while you open it.”

Nowadays, for example, most smartphones are glued rather than screwed together. That means you need to use a hair dryer to apply heat to soften the adhesive and open to device.

Which is complicated and risks damaging the components within.

More and more consumers are fed up with this situation and want devices that are straightforward and affordable to fix.

Something that iFixit has demanded for years.

Thomas Opsomer: “So as a right to repair campaign, we advocate for what we call a universal right repair, which means it's fine if a manufacturer or their authorized representative can repair a product, whether inside or outside of guarantee. But we also feel that an independent repair should also be able to repair your product, and you should also be able to repair your own product, if you're so inclined.”

That’s echoed by Rene Rapsi, a German member of the European Parliament, who’s campaigned extensively for EU right to repair legislation.

He was instrumental in the EU’s new “right-to-repair” directive, which was adopted in April 2024.

Rene Rapsi: “Whilst many consumers might want to go for a repair, they meet the challenge of extremely expensive repair because of of of of prices for spare parts that are extremely high ordered products are simply irreparable due to design, uh, reasons.”

O-Ton Rene Rapsi: “The right repair introduce a rule that spare parts prices must now be reasonably priced and that barriers of hardware, software and contractual nature are prohibited so that repair overall becomes more affordable.”

The “right-to-repair directive” – which EU states have to implement within the next two years - stipulates that:

-Items fixed by manufacturers within the legal warranty period gain a 12-month warranty extension

-Manufacturers are obliged to fix items even after the warranty has expired 

-They’re obliged to sell spare parts and tools at “a reasonable price”

-And they are banned from complicating repairs through contractual clauses, hardware or software techniques

The directive will also bring into existence an online platform to help consumers find repair shops and meetups, locate sellers of refurbished goods, and buyers of broken devices

iFixit activist Thomas Opsomer welcomes the directive.

Thomas Opsomer: “It's obviously a step in the right direction.”

As does Professor Ian Williams.

Who appreciates the online repair matching platform in particular:

Ian Williams: “The idea is to connect consumers with repairers and sellers of refurbished, repaired goods in their area so you can search for repairs by, by, um, location by quality standards, which will help people find attractive offers.”

The European Commission expects the directive will help save almost 2 million tons of resources and 3 million tons of waste over the next 15 years. 

But Thomas Opsomer also says the directive is far from perfect.

As it only applies to SOME product categories.

Thomas Opsomer: “It only covers about a dozen products. So washing machines, dryers, um, vacuum cleaners, television sets, smartphones, but not the vast majority of products that you would have in your household. So a toaster, a mixer, headphones they are all not covered by specific regulations and therefore not covered by the right repair.”

He also says the directive doesn’t define a “reasonable” price for spare parts and tools.

Even so, there’s cause for optimism.

Thomas Opsomer: “I think that today both right to repair and planned obsolescence have become sort of household names. So I think people are very aware of it.”

So that we might be seeing many more repair cafes popping up across Europe as consumers reuse and repair instead of buying new – a practice that’s already widespread in many other regions of the world.


We hope you enjoyed this episode of Living Planet. It was produced by me Benjamin Restle, and edited by Neil King. The sound engineer was Michael Springer.

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