Until now, the focus of the circular economy has been primarily on designing products for easier disassembling and recycling – the “outer circle” – which implies creating a closed loop of materials. In the case of electronics this means recovering metals in our gadgets, something only feasible at scale and something from which big companies can profit.
The “inner circle” of repair and reuse, seems to have been fairly mute in public discussions on the circular economy but the inner circle is where we can transform our reality. Let’s imagine the rebirth of urban, local economies of maintenance and repair where libraries, community centres, markets, churches, galleries and pubs are used to combat a throw-away culture and fix electronics. The inner circle is people centred, it is for citizens, small companies and community initiatives to reinvent.
In the first year of the Restart Project, more than 500 people brought broken items and gained personalised repair advice from restarters at our restart parties, preventing approximately 393kg of electronic waste. Nearly 18 months in, we have run 40 of these community events in venues across Camden and Brixton in London, and we are working with 54 people in 10 countries who are planning on replicating or remixing the restart party model.
Besides preventing waste, the most important outcome is the mentality shift that opening a device and attempting to fix it can bring. Our restarters don’t just provide a free fix for participants, they demystify electronics and help people feel more confident about troubleshooting and repairing on their own.
Reuse and repair initiatives, however, will not simply flourish in isolation and face serious challenges in scaling up. All of our work has happened on a total shoestring, with no public funding and next to no fundraising. This is where we need the help of policymakers, forward-thinking designers, companies and citizens:
Give repair and reuse priority in the waste hierarchy
Currently, the focus is entirely on diverting waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) from landfill and getting consumers to recycle end-of-life gadgets. Recycling centres have vast spaces allocated to them, but it is hard for reuse initiatives to get the attention and priority they deserve from local authorities.
Space is needed for community repair workshops and the collection of spare parts. The most forward-thinking councils will provide repair and reuse initiatives with a physical presence in recycling centres so they can divert functioning or economically repairable electronics from waste. At the very least, pink skips for electronics recycling should have information posted about local opportunities for electronics reuse. There is no zero sum. A consumer who repairs is guaranteed to recycle at end-of-life.
Call out Darthvader design and the marketing empire
We are starting to suspect that designers are shutting us out of small electronics for good, just to save another 2mm and make sleeker products. Glued assembly and soldered-together parts are just two of the things making it impossible to get into and fix all kinds of devices, not just tablets and smartphones. Meanwhile marketers make us feel unfashionable for having a device which is not the latest sleek black box, but is instead repairable and upgradable.
Rally for documentation for disassembly for repair, not just disassembly for recycling
As devices get smaller and more complex, access to repair and service manuals is an increasing problem. Using copyright laws, we’ve seen manufacturers limit consumer access to this information. Civic-minded people who post information on repairs on YouTube, bulletin boards and iFixit are a vital part of a repair economy. Policymakers at a European level should not stop at mandating documentation for disassembly for recycling. Disassembly instructions should also be given for those who will reassemble and reuse.
Reach people fast enough when a device fails
When a mobile or a laptop fails, many people simply can’t wait for our monthly community events. Using social media is one effective way of crowdsourcing support during panic moments. People use Twitter to ask us how to mend things on a regular basis. While cost can be an issue – people do not want to pay for troubleshooting or a diagnosis – we believe that one of the missing elements with commercial repair is trust. To help, we are compiling a directory of trustworthy commercial repairers who we can refer people in need to.
Recognise the role you play as a citizen in creating a circular economy
Ultimately, we are the inner circle. We need the courage to recognise that old economic models cannot simply be given a circular economy makeover. What we are describing is something incipient, something that is bubbling up from below. And people are powering it.
Janet Gunter is co-founder of the Restart Project, she tweets at @JanetGunter.