Making repair the first choice for Londoners with broken electrical appliances


toaster under repair

Researchers at Imperial are analysing the reasons people don’t get their gadgets repaired, and suggesting measures to change their minds.

Repairing broken household electrical devices rather than throwing them away has all kinds of environmental benefits. There is less waste, obviously, but you also save all the energy, materials and emissions involved in making a replacement, to say nothing of the emissions and congestion involved in transporting it to the consumer.

London’s councils are keen to encourage repair as an option, but working out how best to do that is not straightforward. So they have turned to the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial for help.

Dr Marco Aurisicchio and undergraduate student Elliott Latham have been analysing the barriers that prevent repair and enablers that would help people to get over them.

The initial findings of this work, carried out on an independent basis through Imperial Consultants, will be presented today to an audience of local authorities and other stakeholders attending the One World Living (OWL) programme annual conference, part of London’s Circular Economy Week.

“We have developed a systemic categorisation of barriers and enablers, and we will soon launch a survey in London to learn more about how these barriers and enablers affect the uptake of repair,” Mr Latham explains. “Towards the end of this year, we will start work to develop interventions to address the key barriers to repair.”

A flair for repair

People have a range of different repair options when faced with a broken toaster, kettle or radio. If the device is still under guarantee, it can go back to the manufacturer to be fixed. Then there are professional repair services, particularly for devices such as mobile phones and other consumer electronics.

But there are also a growing number of repair events and repair cafes that offer to fix broken appliances for free or teach people how to do the repairs themselves. Finally, there are people who already have the skills to make the repairs at home.

“The London councils want to understand the factors that influence the ability of people to take any of these routes, including why they may not consider repair at all,” says Dr Aurisicchio.

children repairing toys
Team Repair is teaches kids repair skills and increases their knowledge of science and technology. Source: Team Repair

The project brings together a wide range of local authority stakeholders, including the London Office of Technology and Innovation, the London Environment Directors' Network, London Councils, ReLondon, West London Waste Authority, Barnet Council, and Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which leads on electricals in the OWL programme. This is a collaborative initiative across all London boroughs that aims to reduce emissions associated with consumption.

Also involved are Catriona Tassell, a postgraduate researcher in the Dyson School of Design Engineering working on consumer behaviour and the circular economy, and Team Repair, a social enterprise set up by three design engineers from the School. “They are developing education resources for school pupils to increase their repair skills and knowledge, which is another way of addressing this particular challenge,” says Dr Aurisicchio.

If not, why not

The first part of the project has involved reviewing existing research into repair decisions, and grouping the factors identified as elements of different systems. These systems are: consumer characteristics, such as age, environmental awareness or attitude to repaired products; consumers’ knowledge and experience; the available repair infrastructure; the economic values involved, such as the cost of the original item and of repairing it; and other characteristics of the product, such as its age and quality.

older man repairs a kettle
Some people already have the skill and tools to repair appliances at home. Source: Getty Images

Out of the 47 factors identified, the most frequently cited barrier is that repair is seen as a time consuming and time-intensive process. After that comes cost, either that the original device was cheap or that repair is too expensive. Finally, that repair is not justified by the condition and quality of the product.

But the research also shows that some of the factors can be slippery, appearing as positive in some studies and negative in others. The cost of the original device can be a barrier to repair in some contexts, or an incentive in others. The gender and education of consumers also gives contrary signals, as does the community aspect of repair. Some studies found it a spur to getting things repaired, others a barrier.

Asking around

The next step is to rationalise and reduce these factors to a more manageable number, and build them into a survey that will be sent out to households across London later in the year.

“This will ask people about the most recent products that broke or malfunctioned in their household, and try to assess what influenced their decision either not to consider repair, or to consider repair through one of the routes,” explains Dr Aurisicchio.

We are working for London’s councils, looking at how people handle durable products between the manufacturer and the waste manager, and how we can support the development of repair practices. Dr Marco Aurisicchio Dyson School of Design Engineering

This information will then inform the development of interventions to support repair activity in London. For example, if a lack of information about repair services is a significant problem, then a website might be established to directing people to services, depending on their location and the product they want to fix.

This repair project is an interesting departure for Dr Aurisicchio, whose work has previously focussed on reuse and recycling of short-lived products, analysing the systems that might aid their circulation through the economy.

”I work a lot for large consumer goods corporations such as Procter & Gamble, on the one side, and for waste managers such as Ragn-Sells on the other,” he says, “And this is another angle. We are working for London’s councils, looking at how people handle durable products between the manufacturer and the waste manager, and how we can support the development of repair practices.”

Main picture: Getty Images


Ian Mundell

Ian Mundell


Engineering-Design-Eng, Enterprise, Net-Zero, Societal-engagement, Sustainability
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