Science·What on Earth?

Canada gets closer to a right to repair law

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at proposed right to repair legislation, the eco-impact of styrofoam and a 12-year-old climate striker in Victoria, B.C.

Also: Meet a 12-year-old climate striker

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello there! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Canada gets closer to a right to repair law
  • Meet a 12-year-old Canadian climate striker
  • Tidal power is literally making waves
  • The truth about Styrofoam

Is the right to repair ready for prime time?

(Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

When Michael Coteau's daughter dropped his Samsung Galaxy S8 this past fall, cracking it all over, the Ontario Liberal MPP kept using it for a while.

"But then it started irritating my ear, because the glass was kind of breaking apart," he said.

It's greener to repair such a device than recycle it and buy a new one — Nicole Mortillaro has pointed out how environmentally damaging it is to manufacture mobile devices. Recycling and disposal is also energy intensive, and many parts end up in the landfill.

But as CBC reported last fall, manufacturers often make it expensive and difficult to get devices repaired. They force customers to use "authorized" shops that often charge more than it would cost to buy a new device, restrict access to spare parts and manuals or even use software to render devices unusable if they've undergone "unauthorized" repair.

Coteau wanted to repair his Samsung, but given the aforementioned challenges, he ended up replacing it with a new phone. "It's a waste," he said. "It was a working device."

These repair issues don't apply just to mobile devices, but increasingly to vehicles and smart appliances, from TVs to washing machines.

The good news is governments are starting to fight back with "right to repair" legislation. Last week, Coteau introduced a private member's bill amending Ontario's Consumer Protection Act that represents the first right to repair legislation ever proposed in Canada.

The bill would force brands to:

  • Provide consumers or electronics repair shops with replacement parts, software and tools for diagnosing, maintaining or repairing their products, for a fair price.

  • Provide electronic documents such as repair manuals for free.

  • Reset any electronic security that may disable the device during diagnosis, maintenance or repair.

Coteau said the goal is to reduce environmental waste, allow repairs to be made locally and encourage innovation.

The "right to repair" movement is picking up around the world for different kinds of products. Similar legislation for electronics is being considered in 18 U.S. states. A bill passed in Massachusetts in 2012 after a public referendum already requires car manufacturers to provide documents to allow anyone to repair their vehicles.

The U.S. also modified rules last fall allowing consumers to legally hack software in their devices as needed for repair and maintenance. In Europe, proposed right to repair legislation covers appliances such as fridges and washing machines.

Because Coteau isn't a member of Ontario's ruling party, his private member's bill may be stuck in debate for awhile.

In the meantime, here's some good news: "Dumb" devices — i.e. gadgets that don't contain a computer chip, like radios or blenders — can often be fixed for free at volunteer-run "repair cafes" across the country.

Emily Chung

Meet a 12-year-old Canadian climate striker

(Andrew Gage)

If you've been following the news at all, you've likely heard about the youth-led protests worldwide in favour of greater climate action. The best-known participant is Sweden's Greta Thunberg, who has been skipping school every Friday since August to "strike for climate." The forthright 16-year-old, who has chastised adults at both the COP24 climate conference in December and the World Economic Forum in January, has inspired many young people — including 12-year-old Rebecca Wolf Gage (above).

Wolf Gage attends Shoreline Community Middle School in Victoria, and on the first Friday of every month, she and other students leave class and march down to the mayor's office to discuss local green initiatives.

What first inspired you to become involved in raising awareness of climate change?

My dad is very environmental, and he taught me about climate change from a young age. He inspires me almost every day, but didn't tell me to take on activism. Greta Thunberg also inspires me so much. If you have time to watch her interviews, please do. They are amazing! When I was five, I decided to support the Green Party even though my parents usually voted for a different party. That was when I realized that I was an environmental activist.

What has been the reaction of your teachers?

My teachers aren't supportive of me striking, but they're not unsympathetic. I have heard that some of the other strikers have less sympathetic teachers, and I'm lucky to have good ones at Shoreline Community Middle School.

Do you think your fellow students understand the importance of stopping climate change?

I find that most of my classmates either don't think that climate change is a big deal, or don't think there's any way to stop it. But I have a lot of friends who I strike with that are as passionate as I am about stopping climate change.

What sorts of climate-friendly ideas have you pitched to the mayor?

We started meeting with the mayor two months ago. Lisa Helps is the best mayor I've ever met around environmental issues. Many of us have addressed the CRD [Capital Regional District] board, where they announced the climate emergency resolution, brought forward by Mayor Helps. We have also set a goal of getting free bus passes for kids 18 and under throughout the CRD.

What are you planning in the coming months to keep this issue on people's minds?

For the coming months, we're going to try to advertise the climate strike as much as possible. On May 3, it's a huge national climate strike. In the summer, we are thinking about holding an environmental summer camp for youth to come learn about climate change and the climate strike. We have done a one-day enviro school before, and it was a success.

If you could do one thing to take this fight to the next level, what would it be?

If I could convince the Canadian government to set high climate targets and actually meet them, my dream would have come true. I think for now, an easier thing to do is to get 1,000 climate strikers in Victoria.

Andre Mayer

The Big Picture: Tidal power

In seeking ways to generate electricity, jurisdictions around the world inevitably look at their natural endowments. For countries with especially choppy waters, that has included tidal power, which exploits the kinetic energy of changing tides. Here's a look at the biggest tidal power projects in the world.


What's on your mind?

Nicole Mortillaro's story last week on OOM, a Canadian company that has created a standalone, off-grid power unit for large buildings, stirred a lot of interest — both positive and negative.

One reader wrote in to say, "I started to get a little concerned when I learned that it takes companies off the grid, which in Ontario largely provides energy from clean sources, and will be providing electricity from natural gas."

Another reader had this suggestion: "The country does not need OOM or anything else. What it needs is reliable electricity hidden underground!" The idea of burying power lines has been bandied about for a while — with the acknowledgement that it is a very expensive undertaking.

Have other comments or questions?

Email us at

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A new study suggests that the expansion of our urban environment is leading more animals to ingest "human food," which is affecting their biology and behaviour. One example: Some bears are hibernating for shorter periods.

  • Canadian political watchers know that the popularity of the federal NDP has been flagging, notably in Quebec. This column suggests that in order to win back a large number of (environmentally minded) Quebecers, Jagmeet Singh's party should propose a Canadian version of the Green New Deal.

  • One big takeaway from this week: Government policies to reduce carbon emissions work. That was the finding of a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, which revealed that between 2005 and 2015, CO2 levels in 18 countries (including many European countries and the U.S. — but not Canada) declined.

  • In what seems like poetic environmental justice, a research team led by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, has figured out a carbon capture process that sucks CO2 out of the air and turns it into … coal.

Styrofoam and the environment: It's complicated

(Emily Chung/CBC)

Amid all the recent talk of banning plastic, many environmentally conscious consumers wonder: What about Styrofoam?

Also known as plastic foam, the scientific term for it is expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), and it can be found in everything from takeout containers to helmets to car bumpers.

The worldwide production capacity of polystyrene in 2016 was 14.7 million tonnes, according to industry group Plastics Insight. It is estimated that 80 per cent of Canada's foam packaging ends up in the garbage, contributing to the eight million tonnes of plastic annually discarded in oceans.

According to Science Learning Hub, it can take up to 500 years for one foam cup to break down.

Indianapolis-based plastic manufacturing expert Kelvin Okamato points out that there are two common versions of polystyrene: expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) and extruded polystyrene foam (XPS). EPS is used to create foam cups and takeout containers, whereas XPS is used to make packing material as well as insulation board for buildings.

The main reason polystyrene is so ubiquitous is that it is lightweight, rigid, versatile and able to withstand dramatic temperature changes. According to a 2016 study, 40 per cent of polystyrene is made for the food packaging industry — and EPS foam containers in the industry are at an all-time high.

Food Safety Magazine has noted that polystyrene foam trays are economically beneficial because they are cheap to produce and dispose of, and the fact that they're single-use helps with food safety.

While styrofoam has long seemed like an environmental villain, a recent European-based study found that manufacturing EPS containers has a lower environmental impact — minimal material and electricity requirements for manufacture — than two other common takeaway containers, which are made of aluminum and polypropylene.

Alberta-based manufacturing expert Odessa Ingarfield said the main problem is that polystyrene isn't manufactured to be recycled. In many places around the globe, polystyrene is difficult to recycle because its petroleum base is hard to break down, while the lightweight and clunky shape makes it expensive to transport.

So much of it gets thrown out.

"Designers now are asked to design a product, but not the recyclability of that product," said Ingarfield.

She believes that rather than banning EPS production, companies should be finding a way to repurpose it through a closed-loop recycling process, where waste is collected, processed and recycled back to its original material, or a two-stage processing facility.

Okamato and Ingarfield both believe changes to consumer behaviour will improve the environmental impact of polystyrene, and plastics more generally.

"If you want to use plastics, then make sure you know what you are using it for," said Ingarfield. "If you plan on leaving [the item] behind to degrade, then don't use plastics."

Andrea Kay

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


  • A graphic in a previous version of this story included the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon in Wales in a list of 'the biggest tidal power plants in the world right now.' In fact, the project is in limbo after government raised concern over funding of the plant. The Swansea Bay project was removed from the graphic.
    Mar 01, 2019 9:17 AM ET