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The crime of disposability

Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen literally thousands of broken devices brought to Restart Parties. Restarters from all over the world tend to be very successful with their volunteer repairs.

According to data contributed to our Fixometer, 54% of all products brought to a Restart Party are repaired on the spot, while 27% are “repairable”, by repair volunteers or businesses, once a spare part or adequate tool is procured.

What about the remaining 19%? It’s comprised of products either designed to be impossible to take apart, lacking repair documentation or (affordable) spare parts. These are fairly common issues, and we are working with our international partners of the Open Repair Alliance to document these instances, collecting and sharing evidence.

In-your-face disposability

However we are witnessing other worrying developments, including the emergence of products that are simply — and unnecessarily — disposable. Some are even single-use!

One recent example is the Power Hit, an “emergency disposable” mobile phone charger launched last summer and still widely on sale including at a supermarket chain near our London office. What’s our “problem” with that? Once the original battery charge is used, the product’s life is finished and it is ready to be recycled. Except, as with all small lithium-ion batteries – chances that that battery is disposed of responsibly are small.

Moreover, a popular video by electronics teardown hero Big Clive revealed that the battery used in this charger would *actually* be rechargeable – but the manufacturer deliberately chose to cut corners, making the product disposable and wasteful, ignoring the environmental impact of producing batteries. Why? Because it can.

The manufacturer’s website informs us that the company “takes its ethical responsibility seriously (…) and it complies with all UK and EU regulations in accordance with Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) including financing a proportionate share of the UK’s annual WEEE collection targets.”

This is exactly the problem: waste legislation alone does not pave the way to more reusable and longer-lasting products.

As usual, it is not just about one product or one specific company. Searching on AliBaba, we could find dozens if not hundreds of similar products available across the world. The convenience of a very portable charger is understandable and desirable, but why does it have to be single-use and disposable?

Better regulation and support for stand-out designs

A single-use mobile battery might be an extreme example. And yet, the problem is much broader and systemic: think for instance of solar chargers, theoretically the greenest of products, right? We’ve seen time and again specific models brought to a Restart Party because they stop working – and it turns out they’re impossible to disassemble without breaking them further.

How do we get out of this? We need better regulation, reducing chances that products with high environmental impact and limited use become available on the market.

Designers and makers have great responsibilities as well, and an opportunity to stand out. They can lead a new approach to making, by taking simple design steps to avoid making a product disposable, and at the same time by being more open and up-front in the way they communicate about their environmental and ethical approach. For example, projects such as Safecast, Kano computer and the Mycroft Mark II Open Voice Assistant show a promising approach to modularity, by allowing their users to assemble (and therefore disassemble!) the products, and reducing chances that a whole product would become useless if one component breaks or unused. We need more of this, and we need makers to tell the stories of the environmental reasons behind their choices.

Last December we spoke about this at ThingsCon Amsterdam, where we shared our concerns about product durability with makers of connected devices.

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