In 2016, 45 million tons of electronic waste was generated by the Earth’s population; this includes discarded monitors, laptops, burnt-out video cards, dusty game consoles, and of course a lot of smartphones that became consumables in the developed world despite not being cheap toys. Only 20 percent of this is recycled correctly – even though some cities try to reduce e-waste production on a community basis.
The BBC visited Paris to see how the special local cafes work that occasionally host assembly events with the involvement of volunteer repairmen. Anyone with a non-functioning, broken but still salvageable gadget can attend, and the volunteers help to fix the devices free of charge - and even teach the gadget owners what to do next time. The idea comes from journalist Martine Postma, who started the movement back in 2009 in Amsterdam; the French Repair Café Paris was launched ten years later, attracting roughly 25 people for their workshops.
In Europe, where the problem of e-waste is particularly acute, researchers estimate only 12% to 15% of mobile phones are properly recycled – despite around 90% of the population owning one. What about the other regions? Well, it is often shipped illegally to countries like Ghana, the Philippines, Nigeria or China, where they simply bury thousands of tons of hazardous waste - after all, these devices have batteries whose toxic substances can leak into the soil and have a serious impact on the environment. In 2021, it is estimated that 52 million tonnes of e-waste will end up in dumpsites, and it will double by 2050 amounting to more than 100 million tonnes.
What is the solution? Changing waste management strategies is necessary, but it’s at least as important that we throw fewer items in the rubbish bin and more often opt to take our devices to be repaired. According to a study conducted in France, less than half, 40 per cent, of the country’s broken gadgets are repaired, the rest are thrown away; the government wants this rate to reach 60 percent within five years. To this end, since January, manufacturers have been obliged by law to use five variables to determine the repairability of their products. These include the level of difficulty of repair, the price and availability of parts, the documentation, and a value that can be set individually for each product. Manufacturers that do not cooperate can be fined.
The French model can even be an example to follow, especially if it helps to reduce emissions in the long run. The European Environment Agency estimates that if all washing machines, laptops, vacuum cleaners and smartphones in the EU remain in use for an additional year, there will be four million tonnes less CO2 released annually by 2030. That is equal to the emissions of two million cars.
Of course, the goals are also hindered by technological development. The increasingly-compact devices are becoming more difficult to repair, and battery life is not increasing as drastically as that of other components — that is, if the battery in a product cannot be replaced, no matter how careful we are, it will sooner or later become inoperable. Moreover, it is not necessarily in manufacturers’ interest to make their devices work forever, as they come up with new products year after year that also need to be marketed somehow.
Of course, user responsibility is an important aspect, too. There are two thousand repair cafes worldwide, and since 2017, an International Repair Day has been held every year on the third Saturday in October, inviting those interested in technology to a joint gadget repair event.
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