Sustainability-in-Tech : Austria’s Tech Gadget Repair Scheme

Austria’s Repair Bonus voucher scheme sees the government pay citizens up to €200 (£173) towards getting old electrical appliances, devices and tech gadgets fixed.

Why?  

The Austrian government scheme, financed through the Covid Recovery Fund, is designed to motivate people to repair rather than throw away old electrical appliances (and add to a growing pile of e-waste). Austria’s Climate Minister Leonore Gewessler launched the scheme with the intention of “making repair attractive again.” 

The E-Waste Problem 

A 2019 UN report showed that the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes annually of electronic and electrical waste, also known as e-waste, but that only 20 per cent of this is formally recycled. Put in context, the current worldwide pile of electronic waste weighs more than all the commercial airliners ever made. The UK, for example, currently produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, which is nearly 10kg more than the European Union (EU) average.

Some of the main problems associated with e-waste are:

– Environmental pollution. E-waste contains harmful toxins like Lead, Mercury, Cadmium (and others), posing significant health and environmental risks.

– Loss of valuable materials. E-waste is a source of scarce and valuable materials such as gold and platinum, which are often lost due to improper disposal.

– The current recycling rates are too low. Only about 20 per cent of e-waste is formally recycled worldwide, leading to environmental harm and material loss.

– Health risks in informal recycling. In countries with a predominantly informal e-waste sector, such as India, workers face severe health risks due to exposure to dangerous chemicals.

– Asset wastage. Companies often prematurely dispose of electronic assets, resulting in the loss of potentially useful resources.

– Data security concerns. Fears over data security leads some companies to destroy electronic assets rather than recycle or reuse them.

– E-waste export to developing countries. Despite the Basel Convention’s limitations, developed countries have been exporting a significant portion of their e-waste to developing countries, contributing to improper recycling practices. However, the upcoming “Swiss-Ghana Amendments” to the Basel Convention, effective from 2025, aim to redefine the trade rules for hazardous and non-hazardous e-waste, potentially reducing this issue.

– Cheap electrical goods preventing recycling. For example, if the costs of repairing an electrical item / device are more than 20-30 per cent of the cost of the new product, people are more likely to buy new and not repair the old item. The Repair Bonus scheme may, therefore, be a way to lower those costs, and act as an incentive to repair more.

Which Items Does The Austrian Repair Scheme Apply To? 

Austria’s Repair Bonus voucher scheme applies to almost all electrical and electronic equipment commonly used in private households, including those with a power cord, rechargeable battery, and battery or solar modules.

How Does The Scheme Work? 

The scheme works by issuing vouchers that can be redeemed at third party partner companies who carry out the repairs. The customer downloads the voucher from the government website, pays the partner company upfront, and then receives a direct payment (into their bank account) of half the costs of the repair back after three to four weeks.

A Win-Win 

The scheme is being described as a win-win because customers benefit from cost savings on the repair, local businesses (the partner repair businesses) benefit from additional revenues, and the environment benefits from a reduction in the amount of e-waste.

Challenges 

Although the Austrian scheme has led to more repairs it hasn’t been without its challenges. For example:

– There is a shortage of technicians and craftspeople to carry out the repairs.

– Some of the spare parts needed for some repairs are no longer available, so replacements need to be found.

– The scheme needs to work well enough to change quite an entrenched mindset in what has become a ‘throwaway society.’

What Else Could Encourage Repair and Recycling? 

In addition to voucher schemes, like the one in Austria, other measures that could encourage the repair and recycling of electrical goods and a circular and more sustainable economy could include:

– Educational campaigns, i.e. increasing public awareness about the environmental and economic benefits of repairing and recycling electronics and educating consumers about their rights to repair their own devices or to have them repaired by a third party.

– Extended producer responsibility (EPR), i.e. implementing policies requiring manufacturers to take back used products for recycling or proper disposal.

– Repair-friendly design regulations. Encouraging or mandating manufacturers to design products that are easier to repair and upgrade.

– Tax breaks or incentives for companies and consumers who repair, recycle, or buy refurbished electronics.

– Community repair events such as organising local repair cafes or workshops / pop-up workshops where people can bring their electronics for free or low-cost repairs.

– Providing financial and technical support to small businesses specialising in repairing electronics.

– Recycling infrastructure development. Investing in more accessible and efficient recycling facilities and collection points.

– More laws and regulations for waste reduction including enforcing stricter regulations on electronic waste disposal and promoting recycling.

Is There A Similar Scheme In The UK? 

Unfortunately, here in the UK, there isn’t a direct counterpart to Austria’s Repair Bonus voucher scheme for electrical devices. However, the UK government did introduce new ‘Right to Repair’ laws in 2021, and has initiated a consultation to enhance electrical waste recycling, making it easier for people to recycle through manufacturer and retailer responsibility. Also, The Restart Project advocates for the Right to Repair and promotes repair and reuse through various initiatives and community activities.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Austria’s Repair Bonus voucher scheme could represent one way to move forward in addressing the escalating global problem of e-waste and promoting a more sustainable approach to technology usage and the use of all household appliances and gadgets. For organisations, this kind of initiative is not just about environmental stewardship but also presents an opportunity for economic and societal benefits.

The scheme does appear to provide a win-win in terms of providing cost savings to consumers, boosting local businesses, and reducing the volume of e-waste making the option of fixing old devices more attractive compared to buying new ones.

However, the Austrian scheme does face challenges, particularly in the areas of technical workforce and spare parts availability. Finding a way to ensure a steady supply of skilled technicians through training and education programs may be essential going forward. Also, making spare parts more accessible, possibly through collaborations with manufacturers, might be a way to ensure that more repairs are feasible and cost-effective.

If similar initiatives are adopted in many other countries too, this could have a positive impact on global e-waste reduction and tailoring these programs to suit specific national contexts could maximise their effectiveness. Also, incentivising businesses (who are large buyers of electrical devices) to engage more actively in repair and recycling efforts could be achieved through a variety of measures, such as tax incentives, subsidies, or recognition programs.

In terms of environmental impact, such initiatives could contribute to the conservation of valuable resources and reduce the need for extracting new raw materials. From an economic standpoint, developing a robust repair industry could also open up new job opportunities and foster local economies. Promoting repair and recycling also aligns with the broader goals of sustainability and responsible consumption.

The apparent success of Austria’s Repair Bonus scheme, therefore, offers valuable insights and food for thought into how similar strategies could be implemented globally. For organisations, embracing these principles could mean not only contributing to environmental sustainability but also potentially tapping into new economic opportunities. As awareness of the e-waste challenge grows, initiatives like these could provide a roadmap for responsible electronic waste management and a more sustainable future.