Discarded textiles and e-waste disproportionately contribute to landfill profiles, with experts forecasting an increase in these categories propelled by our increasing culture of mass-consumerism. AMR recently sat down with the duo behind Mend It, Australia, who are on a mission to raise awareness of repairability within local communities. Our conversation wonderfully informs how a pair of determined retirees are inspiring others to take part in the growing Right to Repair movement, the stigmas and struggles they’ve faced, and their hopes for the future of sustainability.

Today I’m talking with Karen and Danny Ellis from Mend, It Australia – a project dedicated to raising awareness of the need for immediate reuse and repair of everyday items. MIA also champions policy and legislative changes that would support a circular economy at scale. The focus of today is to better understand the Right to Repair movement, what its impacts are, and why it is worth fighting for.

Lots to cover, so let’s get into it.

Firstly, thank you both for your time. For those who might not be aware, could you explain the background and history of Mend It, Australia (MIA)? How did you first get into the Right To Repair movement?

Karen: MIA came about from some negative experiences, which isn’t a great way to start is it? But when you’re told no, it can be quite motivating, if you are inclined to see the positives in the negatives. It all started when we went down to our local resale center at a metropolitan transfer station and saw the amount of stuff that was being recovered to sell back to the community. We started to reuse that stuff, reuse it in our daily lives. Creatively it was of interest to us, to repurpose items that we might need. If we saw a need, we would buy it and fix it up or repair it, and share that on social media – it was quite fun… sharing and raising awareness of the message about how much money you could save by doing this, and also what you could do to reduce waste in your community and literally clean up the planet. It became a lifestyle.

We started asking questions, and we couldn’t find the answer. It was all so secretive, sideways glances like, ‘why would you want to know that?’.

We also saw the incredible amount of e-waste. Some of it was still working, stuff that our national recycling scheme was shredding. There was no reuse and repair, we thought it was going to be used by other organisations. We started asking questions, and we couldn’t find the answer. It was all so secretive, sideways glances like, ‘why would you want to know that? Go work at the salvos! (The Salvation Army)’. All these negative experiences, the silence around where was this e-waste going… it took about 10 years for us to finally find out what was happening. During a COVID webinar I asked the question and finally got an answer back – it wasn’t going back for reuse or repair, for parts to be salvaged, it was all being shredded! Televisions, computers, mobile phones, a lot of other e-products, they were also being shredded, toasters, kettles, lamps. That really concerned us, that we weren’t being given straight answers.

Danny: The other thing too was that we were told the government and stakeholders had a great scheme going. The stakeholders are the commercial ventures, all the producers of the waste. They pay for the scheme, and of course they want it all shredded, they don’t want it ‘coming back out’ as it will reduce their bottom line. All along we were told this was really good, the e-waste collection. That’s what really annoyed us, this (scheme) they thought was really good, was actually really bad. The only thing they were doing is shredding, there was no option for others to salvage, repair or reuse. A lot of stuff you could take home and plug in, done.

Karen: The National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) is lauded for its recycling, there’s no disputing that. Once the (Victorian) legislation came in that no e-waste was to go to landfill, certainly this scheme ensures that doesn’t happen. It has had some success over the last 10 years and no doubt provides recycling businesses with plenty of work, however it is no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be changed, and we’ve let the Federal Government know that in our Right to Repair submissions.

It didn’t make sense to us as to why we were being fobbed off, we were concerned citizens about waste and resource recovery. I think they didn’t know what to do with us. Who would be interested in waste and recycling? Maybe that’s what it was.

There were also some experiences around trying to set up community repair events. We did that for around 18 months, back around 2017. It was all going well, then the local health organisation that was involved in supporting it wanted to introduce a contract, saying this was now their project and we (MIA) were volunteering at it. That contract was quite involved. We said no, we weren’t going to sign it, and that didn’t go too well, and we were told we couldn’t participate in the event we had set up. We met with them and tried to discuss it, however they were on a path to formalise their volunteers in line with state funding. It didn’t sit well with us.

I also wanted to volunteer my time doing sewing with the youth, and agreed, provided I could access (discarded) fabrics, as there were lots of fabrics going to landfill and wanted to help them learn how to upcycle garments. They (the council) didn’t like that and wanted to buy new, spend money. Again, this wasn’t where we were coming from.

There is a cultural shift, people are starting to worry about how long we can do what we are doing, consume, consume, consume. Thankfully, some are starting to get it.

With all that combined, we felt like, here we are, retired, willing to volunteer, to fund it ourselves, to make sure nobody is out of pocket, especially the youth and their families in disadvantaged areas. We’re being told to ‘work for the Salvos’ because we haven’t got a need for you and your ‘ideas’. That’s when we thought this project was right to start, for us to go out and do what we need to, on our own, with as little bureaucracy as possible. There are limitations to not being incorporated, we understand that, but we prefer not to receive grants from anyone so they can’t tell us what to do, we are managing what we need ourselves.

Danny: Mend It also tries to make an influence online, pointing out the downfalls of a system that doesn’t want to accept what is going on. There is a cultural shift, people are starting to worry about how long we can do what we are doing, consume, consume, consume. Thankfully, some are starting to get it.

Karen: We were told that we weren’t ‘a good look’ for the movement, because during an online energy seminar we asked a politician to mention Right to Repair. The message back was, ‘that wasn’t appropriate’, that volunteers shouldn’t act in that manner. However, that wasn’t going to stop us. These negatives have been positives in driving us forward in our work – we are of the personality not to take these things to heart.

For your average consumer, how would Right to Repair impact their daily life, or rather, why should they care, why is this important? Why can’t I repair my device? Don’t I own it?

Danny: For a start, it would give them options. You could go to the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), an independent repair store, or have a go yourself. Many don’t realise, if you take an iPad apart there are so many different screws, all sorts of components. It is quite intense. There are so many helpful instructions in the online community to get you started. You start something that you aren’t good at, you feel like a fool… but you are a bigger fool if you don’t try.

Karen: The Right to Repair is also difficult to get your head around, because it is incredibly legal, so many laws, intellectual property law, consumer laws and so on. Luckily, we are in touch with lawyers, in those networks, and with them working on the Right to Repair it will make this more accessible. There is a book by lawyer Aaron Perzanowski called The Right to Repair, and it is written in layman’s terms so people will be able to understand these issues and why we are fighting for it. There are issues of ownership, young people might think they own their Electronic Vehicle or mobile phone, but less and less is that so.

Danny: The lawyers are now collaborating with people like us, to get a better understanding of what this all means when we say, ‘I can’t change a screen because it’s serialised’. Hopefully, they are going to write legislation that protects IP, but just because you have a single component that needs repairing doesn’t mean the whole phone has to be replaced, or have to take it back to OEM if you want it to work.

Karen: Consumer law is also looking at the Repairability Index in France. The limitation is that the OEM’s are scoring themselves, but at least it is a start, and certain products are scored as to their repairability. What’s being tested and scored is debatable, it is still early days, but that’s good for the consumer to able to see the scores and inform their choice as to what to buy. Choice Australia has found that people really do want their items to be repairable, but they need the option and more information. Class action lawsuits are yet another option.

Another one is the design of items, such as the Framework computer products and the Fairphone, for example, addressing design for repairability and not just replaceability. These are beneficial for everyday people who might only have limited skills and are perhaps only confident in replacing batteries and simple components.

Modern tech has been trending toward thinner and lighter devices for a while now. However, as we’ve seen during teardowns by the likes of iFixit and Jerry Rig Everything, the tradeoff appears to a decrease in repairability with an increasing number of components glued down. It also seems that gone are the days of easily accessible replacement parts. My question to you is, does increased repairability come at the cost of bulkier form factors? Should consumers be more pragmatic in their expectations regarding product design?

Danny: They (vendors) use excuses like waterproofing to explain why they need to use such strong glues. If your phone is a metre underwater, what are you doing? Sure, if your phone drops into a puddle, that’s a bit of bad luck, but a phones a phone. This is where younger influencers need to stand up and say, ‘yes I’ve got this phone and it might not be quite as thin but it’s just as good, and most importantly, it’s repairable’. That’s what will change people.

Karen: Repair needs to made more sexy, more cool. We need the youth to make the movement look more appealing, and that goes for repairable devices to offset if they are made a bit bigger. Repair won’t progress unless we can get younger generations involved and hype created around repairability and durability. How we do that – that’s one for the marketers and the advertising agencies!

We are making noise and people need to voice their concerns. If we stop buying their products, OEM’s will quickly realise… we need to exercise our individuality and the power that comes with it.

Danny: People just don’t realise that they have power, and they don’t use it. We try to influence, but if there were other groups out there, the movement will grow. Once people realise they have some power, the OEM’s will change. I watched a review of the Samsung Galaxy S22 by Hugh Jeffreys, he actually had two of them and all the parts were interchangeable. You can now swap things like camera modules, whereas in the S21 you couldn’t do that. So that’s telling me that we are making noise and people need to voice their concerns. If we stop buying their products, OEM’s will quickly realise… we need to exercise our individuality and the power that comes with it.

Karen: It’s so refreshing to see young people promoting repair, it’s appealing to us to see that… we’ve got some competition! We certainty want to see the younger generation stand up, and it’s happening, it’s just great. For example, startups like yourself, or Mended, which was founded by an entrepreneur in the Netherlands. They provide an Uber-like service, traveling around the Netherlands and picking up textiles that need repair, delivering them to repair shops and returning them to the consumer. We congratulated them and they were grateful for us helping to spread awareness and provide positive comments. It was very refreshing to come across her startup.

Danny: Exactly. As more come onboard the pressure will be felt by the OEMs and this will carry on to the commercial side. It will start to change their attitudes, rather than them trying to change our attitudes.

Karen: Companies want to appeal to the younger generation, those willing to spend up. Baby boomers do have money, there’s no doubt, but aren’t as tech savvy. Younger generations need to influence the OEMs, and use the design and IT skills they have to help make a change.

To your point, we’ve seen small steps in repairability from leading tech companies – such as Microsoft, Dell and others. Can big tech do more? In your estimation does change need to start with the vendors? Or should government and policy be leading the way?

Danny: In Australia, the Federal government gave the auto industry 3 years to supply diagnostic information to third parties, which they didn’t do. So, the government had to step in and legislate it. If we leave it with the OEMs, it’s a case of ‘let’s give them a chance to change their ways’, and I don’t think that will happen. What I’d like to see is a bigger push to allow for individual, modular component repair, where they only have to repair a single part instead of replacing the entire device. But, they can’t do that without being provided accurate schematics, that will be the hardest thing to get out of manufacturers.

Karen: And manufacturers need to be designing repairable products. The United States are pushing from a consumer perspective, the Europeans are more concerned with the design of products. We need products designed for repairability and durability. The EU are definitely looking at that and have introduced legislation, not directly under Right to Repair, that demands products are designed a certain way and that spare parts are available for a length of time. That’s really important and industry are being targeted there. Governments also need to write legislation that pushes this along, as industry won’t do it unless they are mandated. Or they’ll play games, like Apple, who indulge consumers with a little bit, making newer phones repairable to a degree. Whereas in India, they are also making older phones repairable, but not here.

Danny: And you can only repair two or three components on the phone.

Karen: John Deere faced a similar thing in the US as our auto industry, they had to give the diagnostic information to the farmers, and they never did. And now there is a class action lawsuit underway. So, as you can see, Right to Repair cuts across many different industries, and it will be interesting to see how this all goes.

Two retirees trying to get their heads around all this… it’s interesting, but we don’t want to know it all either. We’ll certainly share what we can, to people like our legal colleagues, and we feel like we’ve done our job, that it’s gone on to the people that are best placed to move things forward. That said, we have a general overview and take a big interest in it.

Critics of Right to Repair have argued that providing diagnostics or schematics might compromise device security. They reason that it constitutes a sharing of IP, in essence ‘open sourcing’ proprietary architecture and inviting an inherit security risk to consumers and their data. Is that a legitimate concern?

Danny: Schematics are just a diagram of what you see in front of you; a resistor, a capacitor, a chip, whatever. A schematic will just tell you what they are, not what’s inside of them – that’s the intellectual property. It’s not the computer chip itself, but what’s inside, the brains running all the components, and we don’t want to touch that. If you are trying to alter the programing of the chip, sure that would be an issue, but if all you are doing is replacing a bad chip with a good one, that’s just a repair. Whether you are replacing a screen, a resistor or a battery, that’s got nothing to do with IP, more so to do with the overall functioning of the device.

Karen: Those claims are unfounded, by all reports. Even the Productivity Commission’s report into Right to Repair said it’s not of concern when they were making recommendations to the Federal government. The same goes for Nixing The Fix, the report by the Federal Trade Commision in the US, again unfounded. Same goes for the medical equipment during COVID, those were the same arguments around safety. iFixit published a database of ventilator schematics and then were up for copyright issues. Thankfully, they had some great lawyers. Copyright wasn’t being breached as they weren’t trying to sell the schematics. We don’t pay much attention to that argument in the Right to Repair circles, but it is one we certainly have to be aware of, and address.

Internationally we’ve seen progress on Right to Repair, most recently in the US where hearings have resulted in supportive executive orders signed by the current administration, similar EU hearings and the UK passing laws in support of consumer repair. So, how is Australian situated by comparison?

That’s what inspires Danny and I. We hope our work makes a difference, even in a small way.

Karen: I’m on the steering committee for Repair Australia, representing consumers, so I have access to what the academics are saying. Their perspective is that Australia is taking a bit from The States, and some from the EU, and using the best of both, as in, design and consumer issues. Australia isn’t as active as we could be, instead sitting on the fence and hoping for positive outcomes, whereas The States are more vocal. I’d like to see more activism, a coalition like The States, pushing the government. We’ve got Repair Australia, a group of interested individuals, but it needs funding to do more. We tend to wait for legislature from the United Stated to set a precedent. We could be doing more, and that’s where Mend It Australia comes in, to be more vocal.

We haven’t got a boss, we don’t answer to anyone for funding… that could be of benefit for people that need to lead this forward, a politician or an academic, someone who has been influenced by two individuals in the community. We’ll never know that, they’ll never tell us, but that’s what inspires Danny and I. We hope our work makes a difference, even in a small way.

Outside of pushing for legislative change, how can the everyday person learn more about the Right to Repair and get involved?

Danny: Rather than dropping off a phone that’s only two years old in the recycling bin, find someone who might need it, family, friends, or the community. A printer, a laptop, a kettle, rice cooker, furniture, textiles, whatever the item may be. That’s one way to get involved that doesn’t cost anything. Sometimes you meet people like us, and get to talking about repairability and that’s another way.

Karen: And that’s our work, going to community repair events, or online, where we post items we’ve fixed. And it’s not just ‘oh look what I did today’, it’s the message that is always there. Like Danny said, offering your items and saying no to the NTCRS which only shreds your stuff, when you think it’s being repaired and reused for disadvantaged organisations. It’s not. This is the reality. Even it is broken, still offer it up, as people are really keen for parts, especially with the war in Europe and COVID.

Danny: Many companies turn over their computer systems every 2-3 years. Surely there is a better way. There is so much e-waste, working devices that could be repurposed. A big problem is that people are time poor, always in a rush. Karen and I are chill, we’ve got time. And we decided 15 years ago it was time to do what we want to do, to make a change.

Karen: We’re just ordinary people, we write submissions to parliament, we get it on the public record. Commenting to inquiries is another great way for the general public to get involved. The Productivity Commission Inquiry had lots of comments, the public made some fantastic, everyday comments about how they saw the Right to Repair issue. That’s an easy way to do it. If you have more time, you can still write a submission, even one that is short and sweet. It is so rewarding to get something on the public record that you can quote. And then when you see it in their actual report, the research that you’ve done, that they’ve mentioned in their final report to government, that does keep spurring you on.

A lack of knowledge around Right to Repair seems to be a key barrier here.

Danny: A good outcome of the submission Karen mentioned was that many people thought repair was illegal, we pointed out that it wasn’t, and it wouldn’t have been accepted if it was illegal. And that itself has spread awareness and changed peoples perspective.

Karen: There’s a myth out there that you can’t repair electrical items unless you’re a qualified electrician. We didn’t believe that, yet received pushback online that we were risking people’s lives, and how dare you, etc. So, we went in search of hard data. We contacted Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) and requested data on DIY electrical repair in the community and injuries, death or electrocutions as a result. It came back that between 2015 to 2020 there had been no DIY electrical injuries requiring hospital admission and no deaths. We used that for the report.

We also rang the electrical safety body of each state (except the Northern Territory), asking who could repair appliances up to 230 volts that were corded. That was an interesting exercise because we got shoved around, people didn’t know, they had no information… it was all very clandestine. Finally, we found out that the only place you couldn’t do electrical repair (on those items) is Queensland, which requires a license. It was really great to then say to doubters, ‘here you go, the myth’s been debunked’. And it’s been quiet ever since.

For many, retirement is exactly that – a time to relax and slow down, it sounds like the opposite was true for you both.

The drive is there, the determination is there, not to accept the nonsense, the myths, or having people who don’t know tell you, ‘This is how it is’.

Karen: It is that investigative research background that drives me. You don’t retire and then just go away, I’ve just got so much to offer, those skills, so why not use them? It’s just that there are times when you really just want to see the grand kids and go to the sewing room and sew! But, the drive is there, the determination is there, not to accept the nonsense, the myths, or having people who don’t know tell you, ‘This is how it is’.

Danny: I’ve repaired a few things in my time. In my experience, the people that want to play with electricity are adept at what they do. It is dangerous, but so is getting in your car or riding your bike. You put in place adequate safety measures.

Karen: And as we mentioned that’s proven by the data from MUARC.

The facts are impressive, but as you know that doesn’t always win over the people. How else can the repair movement sway public opinion and help inform more sustainable consumer choices?

Karen: Right to Repair is exciting, it’s new, rebellious… a protest movement. It’s about saying, ‘enough is enough’. And not everyone wants ‘new’ or the latest. There is a growing movement that wants second hand or vintage, and there is also the disadvantaged who can’t always afford new. They need repurposed and repaired items. Then there’s people like us who aren’t into vintage but instead prefer the quality of older stuff – it’s so much better. More durable and repairable. For us it’s also so much fun and creative to get in there and repair items, not just replace them.

Looking forward, where do you see the Right to Repair movement in the next five years?

Danny: We’d like to see manufacturers getting more involved, beyond just indulging us with minimal effort. It’s also important that governments come onboard, to lay out a path that is practical. People want to go to local shopping centres where items can be replaced on the spot. OEMs ask you to wait two weeks, and that shows you how they want you to buy a new item instead.

Karen: I certainly agree. I’d also like to see more repairability in design and would support the necessary legislation being put in place. Legislation not just for e-waste, but also textiles and furniture. It’s certainly as polluting as e-waste, it’s a huge problem. It would also be great if there was an effect on education, bringing back a focus on showing and training people how to fix things, and the value of mending.

We’d also like to see legislation for repair that prompts funding such as community events, recycling sheds, organisations. Why can’t we have repair and reuse facilities in local communities?

Also, we follow ABI Electronics in the UK. They have developed a tool used by leading rail companies that when plugged in to the board master will help to diagnose faulty components. They are helping to save a lot of industrial e-waste. That would be great to see within Australia, and companies like that continuing to support Right to Repair.

This has been an illuminating conversation and thank you again for taking the time to speak with AMR. Where can people contact you for more information?

Danny: MIA can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. Follow us online for regular information on upcoming community repair events.

Karen: If you’re in the area, come along to one of our events and say hello! You can also join the Repair Australia movement for free to receive the latest information on Right to Repair progress in Australia. ■

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