02 Feb 2024

Repair in the Circular Economy

Together, the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability and Delft University of Technology's faculty of Industrial Design Engineering have produced a whitepaper titled 'Repair in the Circular Economy: European Legislation, Product Design and Business Models'.

The document delves into the role of repair in advancing a circular economy and explores the impact of forthcoming European legislation on the repair of consumer products and its implications for achieving a circular economy. Alongside insights from scientists from different fields, the 'Repair in the Circular Economy: European Legislation, Product Design and Business Models' whitepaper also includes interviews with entrepreneurs and managers and contributions from the Consumers' Association and Techniek Nederland.

The trigger for the paper is a package of directives around consumer product repair that the European Commission is currently working on, including Right to Repair. The document looks at what can be done to make repairing attractive again. It asks whether the new Right to Repair and Ecodesign European directives will make a difference and explores the opportunities and challenges of repair from different angles. Ultimately, the paper concludes that, "Improving repairability requires an integrated design approach that includes the product, legislation, new business models and consumer education."

Addressing various topics, the paper examines the EU's efforts since 2019 to promote a circular economy, focusing on laws to enhance product sustainability and repairability. It includes the revision of the Ecodesign Directive, consumer empowerment, and the Right to Repair.

The document features contributions from professionals involved in repair practices, European Parliament members, and experts from education, industry, and advocacy organisations, offering a broad and practical perspective on repair.

The challenges and opportunities in repair are also covered with insights into fields such as law, industrial ecology, business economics, design, and cultural history. While consumer behaviour, product design potentials and limits, legislation, systems approaches, and life cycle analyses are also discussed.

The paper outlines recommendations for encouraging repair, including consumer education, infrastructure improvement, supporting local repair, and legislative changes to foster a repair culture.

There is also a focus on how businesses can integrate repair into their models, discussing the challenges and opportunities for companies in adopting repair as part of their operations.

In the section titled 'Disassembly: an essential enabler for repair', the crucial role that the ease of disassembly plays in the repair process is emphasised. Bas Flipsen, a senior lecturer and researcher at TU Delft, who advocates for circular product design and develops tools to aid designers and engineers in creating products that are easier to disassemble, argues that no matter the strategy for achieving circularity, a product must be easy to disassemble. He introduces the concept of a Disassembly Map, which visually represents a product's architecture, highlighting design features that might impede repairability. The map also guides designers on how to make the components most likely to fail easily accessible, employing strategies like 'surfacing,' which brings parts closer to the surface to reduce the steps needed to reach them.

This section also discusses how Disassembly Maps can influence product redesign to enhance repairability, such as merging non-essential components into a single module or reducing the number of fasteners used in fixing a component. Bas further introduces Hotspot Mapping, which aids designers in prioritising redesign efforts by considering the failure rates, functionality, environmental impact, and economic value of components.

Overall, the section underscores the need for products to be designed with repairability in mind from the outset, stressing the importance of accessible components and the availability of spare parts and tools that make repair feasible and affordable.

Later in the whitepaper, in a section titled 'Beyond repair: design strategies that extend the useful lifetime of products', Ruud Balkenende, a professor of Circular Product Design at TU Delft, stresses that the ultimate sustainability goal is to extend the useful life of products emphasising the importance of designing products not only for repairability but for overall longevity. Ruud argues that this requires balancing the ability to repair with durability, which may involve difficult design decisions, such as choosing screws over glue to allow for easier disassembly at the risk of potentially compromising product reliability.

Ruud points out that the design process must consider the entire product chain, including the availability of affordable spare parts, the infrastructure for repair, and the willingness of users to engage in repair activities. Highlighting that increasing repairability is not solely dependent on new technological innovations, he explains that design for repairability involves many non-technological aspects, and its societal impact may be limited if these are ignored. English and Dutch language versions of the whitepaper are available for download from the link below.

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