The Right to Repair

I went through three electric water kettles in the same number of years, with no way to repair or salvage them. Do you remember when you could fix your toaster or your coffee machine by ordering replacement parts? When small repair shops could fix any appliance?


Every year, we find that a new phone or computer is launched, with better capabilities, amazing cameras, and so on. We read about Apple paying about $500m to settle claims of intentionally slowing down devices supposedly to “save battery life.” This programmed obsolescence is meant to incite customers into upgrading to the next model, because who would tolerate a slow device? 


The right to repair is a concept that has grown in importance in recent years. It requires manufacturers to provide customers or repair shops access to service information and affordable replacement parts. The statistics are shocking: of the 53 million tons of e-waste are produced each year only 15-20% of e-waste is recycled. The EU recently adopted their Right to Repair law, where refrigerators, washers, hairdryers or TVs in the European Union need to be repairable for up to 10 years.


In 2019, California’s attempt to pass Assembly Bill 1163, which sought to update and revise gaps in existing recycling policy, was thwarted when industry lobbyists used public safety and privacy concerns. Despite the bill’s demise, the Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling has recently issued recommendations proposing to “establish an ‘ease of repair’ requirement on manufacturers such that products can be reasonably disassembled and reassembled by the consumer to replace consumable or defective parts.”


With the pandemic, hospital repair technicians have reported lack of access to parts, tools, information and diagnostic software to keep medical devices, such as ventilators, defibrillators, or anesthesia machines, functional. Introduced in the US Congress in February 2021, the Medical Device Right to Repair Act would require “original manufacturer of powered medical equipment used in the treatment, monitoring, or diagnosis of a patient to provide documentation, parts, and tools used to inspect, diagnose, maintain, and repair powered medical equipment to an authorized repair provider […].” 


The pandemic has underscored the acuteness of the right to repair. Beyond a slowed down phone or a dysfunctional toaster, there is a patient whose intensive care might require lifesaving medical devices to be repaired. His or her life might very well depend on the ability of a repair tech to locate an instruction manual along with replacement parts. It’s high time that right to repair is enshrined in our laws.