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Why is the right to repair important?

Stock image - man repairing a computer

TEDI-London’s Director of Innovation, Professor Julie Bregulla, and Senior Teaching Fellow, Dr Kate Crawford tell us all about what the right to repair is and why it’s crucial for reducing the amount of electronic waste (e-waste) we produce.

At some point, you’re bound to have noticed your laptop or mobile phone working more slowly than it did when you first bought it, or even that it felt old compared to your friend’s newer model. But when you decided to upgrade, what happened to the old one? Electrical items don’t just disappear when we throw them away, and the disposal process is more damaging than many of us realise.

In 2021, 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was generated globally, with this number growing by an average of two million tonnes every year. We have never produced more and used less, with the UK being one of the largest generators of e-waste.

What can we do?

There are a few things we can do to reduce e-waste when we replace our electrical products. When choosing a new device or appliance, it’s important to research whether it would be possible to upgrade or repair it to prolong its life. When disposing of old items, exploring different options to make an informed decision on where they go next can prevent them from ending up in landfill sites. Ask yourself:

  • Would someone else be able to make use of it?
  • Can you dismantle/upgrade any part of the product for re-use in this or another application?

To take this even further, you could become one of the increasing number of people learning to mend their own items. In recent years, various repair initiatives – which aim to encourage and help people fix their own electronic devices – have seen significant growth. From repair tutorials springing up online, to the rise of repair cafes, more and more of us are finding ways to extend the lifetime of our electronics. Not only does this help reduce the amount of e-waste we produce, but it also empowers individuals to take more control over their belongings and save money by replacing them less frequently.

These initiatives feed into a wider campaign – the right to repair movement – which has succeeded in bringing together artists, environmental activists, highly skilled amateur and professional fixers, and people hoping to mend their belongings. Plus, the campaign is gaining traction when it comes to urging manufacturers to re-think the way their products are designed. Many electronic products and devices are designed to have a short lifespan, requiring consumers to upgrade within a few years; how often have you tried to replace the battery in your phone, or repair your dishwasher, only to find that you can’t remove the phone’s back panel to access the battery, or the one dishwasher component you need can’t be bought separately? Enabling consumers to have more say in their buying behaviours will discourage manufacturers from planned obsolescence – a vital step towards minimising global e-waste generation.

Engineers can change the way products are designed! Whilst not all of us are or will be engineers, we can reduce how much personal e-waste we generate. Most of the time, there is a simple solution – with a basic toolkit – that will get your gadget or appliance up and running again. Plus, drawing upon others’ knowledge to repair them is a rewarding way to socialise and learn new skills.

What’s in a basic repair toolkit?

1. Internet access:

  • Online resources and guides, such as iFixit can help you repair things step by step.
  • ‘Teardowns’ where fixers have meticulously dismantled and itemised devices to support repair through education on component parts.

2. People to try repair projects with:

  • Repairing is a learning process and it takes time to become comfortable with. It can be very helpful to find someone who has tried (and failed!) before to learn from.

3. Basic hand tools:

  • A set of small normal screwdrivers and a craft knife is useful, though you may occasionally find that certain gadgets and appliances require non-standard shapes and sizes.
  • A kit of cleaning materials: cloths (like you’d use for glasses), cotton buds and cocktail sticks for getting rid of grit or grease.
  • A pot where you can save spare screws, nuts, and bolts.
  • Lubricants, adhesives, and household solvents like nail varnish remover.

What are the wider benefits?

At present, most e-waste piles up in landfills – sorting and recycling predominantly takes place in developing countries – where toxins like lead, zinc, and nickel pose significant threats. This impacts not only the environment – contributing to climate change – but also affects the health of both land and sea animals and the local people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that as many as 12.9 million women working to sort and dispose of e-waste are at risk of harm from these toxins, along with their unborn children.

Right to repair in action at TEDI-London

Engineers have a key role in determining the types of products that are made and how electrical products are used every day. We are working with right to repair and circular design principles in TEDI-London projects – both in our main programme and TEDI-London residential winter school. From understanding design approaches of small electronic equipment, which contributes the largest proportion of e-waste annually (17.4M tonnes in 2021), to prototyping alternative solutions to most commonly failing parts, our students are collaborating with experts and stakeholders to highlight the importance of design decisions and innovate alternatives.


Want to learn more about the right to repair movement and how you can get involved? Apply to take part in our 2023 residential winter school this month.

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