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Canada's shift to circular economy

Legislating a right to repair for consumers.

Circular economy

Around the world, the linear model of consumption is making way for more sustainable, circular economic models. In Canada, a significant shift in that direction begins with the right to repair.

In the digital era, the life cycle of consumer products has accelerated. Products are designed, manufactured and delivered to consumers at a faster pace than ever before. This rapid cycle contributes to roughly 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions — as a result of materials extraction, production, packaging and waste management.

The traditional ‘take-make-waste’ linear business model can be a driver of climate change. And yet, the responsiveness to high demand for consumer goods also contributes positively to quality of life and economic growth. This presents a paradox. To address this paradox, governments around the world are implementing regulations to address the design, manufacture and end-of-life management of consumer products. The aim is to drive a circular economy where products are reused, repaired and refurbished whenever possible. Under a circular model, end-of-life goods and materials are reincorporated into the production process, reducing resource input and waste output.

Through the circular lens, a meaningful right to repair is a crucial sustainability tool. Though frequently viewed as a narrow instrument of consumer protection, it not only requires that products be repairable but makes repair a feasible and appealing option for consumers. The right to repair becomes an effective driver of sustainability when both producers and consumers are properly incentivized.

In 2020, France pioneered the concept with its ground-breaking Anti-Waste and Circular Economy law. The legislation introduced the right to repair as a foundational element of a suite of regulatory measures to promote sustainable and durable design of consumer electronics (among other products) and reduce the growing volume of e-waste. The law also targets both producers and consumers: it requires the former to design longer lasting products while educating the latter to choose sustainable products and, ultimately, repair over replacement.

Canada is following suit. Last fall, as part of its National Strategy to Encourage Remanufacturing and Other Value-Retention Processes, Canada took a decisive step towards establishing a right to repair.

At the federal level, Bill C-244 passed unanimously through the House of Commons. The bill seeks to amend the Copyright Act to allow for the circumvention of technological protective measures (TPM’s) for the diagnosis, maintenance and repair of software driven electronic products. The government also introduced Bill C-59, which proposes to amend the Competition Act to compel suppliers to provide a means of diagnosis and repair for their products, including information, technical updates, diagnostic software or tools and related documentation and service parts so that third parties can offer repair services.

At the provincial level, Quebec’s Bill 29 amended its Consumer Protection Act to include a right to repair. The new provisions go a step farther than its federal counterparts  by requiring certain consumer electronics to be repairable with “commonly available tools and without causing irreversible damage” by 2026.

Unlike France’s AWCE, Canada’s right to repair is not explicitly grounded in environmental protection legislation. However, environmental sustainability is clearly a driver of emerging consumer product regulatory measures on three fronts.

The first is banning planned obsolescence, the practice of designing products to break down, become incompatible, or simply go out of style before the end of their useful life in an effort to increase sales and profit. Quebec’s Bill 29 prohibits the practice as “any technique aimed at reducing the normal operating life of goods.” Similarly, federal Budget 2023 proposes to mandate common chargers for phones, cameras, laptops, and other electronic devices to ensure ongoing compatibility and reduce waste.

Second is a focus on consumer education through labelling and advertising. Sustainable product design can only be effective if consumers have accurate information with which to choose these alternatives. Bill C-59 introduces a Canadian prohibition on greenwashing under the Competition Act. This means it would be a deceptive marketing practice to make claims about a product’s environmental protection or climate change mitigation benefits that are not supported by adequate and proper testing. Similarly, the Canadian government has proposed uniform labelling rules for the recyclability of plastics and Quebec, again following France’s lead, has shown support for a [FE1] labelling scheme akin to the French ‘repairability index to indicate the durability and sustainability of consumer products and appliances.

The third relates to end-of-life management. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) regimes require producers to retake responsibility for products at the end of their lifecycle to divert them from the waste stream. In Canada, several provincial EPR programs target plastic packaging and electronics. At the federal level, the proposed Federal Plastics Registry (FPR) would impose further EPR requirements on producers of various categories plastic products. These requirements include mandatory reporting of the type and total volume of plastic products introduced on the Canadian market and the amount of said total that is actually recycled, reused, or otherwise prevented from becoming waste. Data gathered by the Minister of the Environment under the FPR is likely to inform the future sustainable regulation of plastic products.

With Bill C-244 in its second reading in the Senate, Canadians can expect a right to repair their common electronics to soon become reality. If Canada continues to conform with the French approach, further measures to ensure the longevity and compatibility of software driven products are sure to follow.  Developments in the emerging right to repair in Canada will determine the pace of the country’s transition to a circular and sustainable economy.