Science·What on Earth?

Looking for a fix: Canadian bill boosts right to repair movement

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how Canada and other jurisdictions are approaching right to repair and why less ship pollution is actually a problem for global warming.

Also: Recycle your bottles to pay for public transit

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • Looking for a fix: Canadian bill boosts right to repair movement
  • Here's an idea: Recycle your bottles to pay for public transit
  • Scientists warn Earth warming faster than expected — due to reduction in ship pollution

Looking for a fix: Canadian bill boosts right to repair movement

A worker fixes a mobile phone
A worker fixes a mobile phone in a shop that sells secondhand mobile phones and provides repair services in the Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)

When Wendy Jang's freezer wouldn't close, she went to great lengths to try to fix it. The manufacturer told her the part she needed — a magnetized piece on the inside of the door — couldn't be replaced. But Jang, a retiree living in Toronto, didn't want to give up. 

"I did all kinds of silly things: I glued magnets to the door, but then I couldn't get that tight seal," she told What On Earth. "So I ended up dumping my fridge, because the magnet stopped working. That's it — a magnet."

It's a common frustration these days: Flimsy appliances and devices that can't be repaired. New and proposed legislation in Canada and around the world aims to address the problem of "planned obsolescence" — albeit from different angles. 

The twin problems of affordability and sustainability have drawn attention to the issue of appliance durability lately, said Alissa Centivany, an assistant professor of information and media studies at Western University in London, Ont. 

"We see lots of really extreme climate-related events happening here and elsewhere in the world," she said. "I think it's really causing many people to take notice of how their own … consumption habits are tied into these questions around environmental sustainability." 

But Centivany, who's been researching product repairability since 2017, said that while individuals can do their best to keep their appliances working, manufacturers are ultimately responsible for their quality and fixability. 

She said the quality of goods has been declining in the last several decades because of business strategies that prioritize turnover rather than durability. In recent years, the problem has become worse for another reason.

"Things that we normally wouldn't expect to be highly sophisticated or computerized, things like home appliances, our cars … are now full of little bits of computer code," she said. That embedded code is protected by copyright, she said, which prevents independent repair companies from being able to fix those products. 

A bill that passed unanimously in the House of Commons in October could change that. Bill C-244, an act to amend the Copyright Act, is now before the Senate. If it passes, it would allow individuals or third-party repair companies to break digital locks in order to make software fixes. 

This change is part of what's known as "right to repair" legislation, a broad spectrum of laws aimed at making goods more durable and fixable. In March, the federal government announced as part of Budget 2023 that it would work to implement a right to repair framework in 2024.

In an email to CBC, the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development said the government is doing pre-consultation work and that the right to repair in Canada could consist of different measures, including at the provincial and territorial levels.

Some provinces aren't waiting for federal direction. In early October, the Quebec government passed Bill 29, which is aimed at protecting consumers from planned obsolescence and promoting the durability, repairability and maintenance of goods. 

Centivany said Quebec's law and the federal bill are a good start, but more is needed, including changes to competition law that could ensure that replacement parts, schematics and tools are more widely available. 

Restraints on competition, she said, also block devices from being able to work with third-party parts. Recent legislation in Europe, which will force companies to use the same USB-C charging port for a variety of devices, including cellphones and tablets — a move aimed at reducing e-waste — is "a step in the right direction," Centivany said. 

Kyle Wiens, founder of the online repair community iFixit and a longtime repair advocate, said the USB-C legislation demonstrates Europe's different approach to laws around repairability. 

He said the U.S. and Canada tend to focus on making repair parts and information more available. For example, Wiens's home state, California, passed a right to repair act in October that will require manufacturers to enable individuals and independent experts to repair products themselves.

Europe, however, is more interested in forcing manufacturers to change the design of products to make them last longer. Wiens offered the example of cellphones with glued-in batteries, a design feature he compared to car companies selling vehicles with the tires welded on. 

"None of us would put up with that with cars, but we do with cellphones," he said.

Europe is in the process of banning glued-in batteries — a move Wiens said could affect the rest of the world, since companies are unlikely to design two versions of devices for sale in different places. 

Wiens hopes these different approaches underway around the world have a "ratcheting effect" that helps push repairability forward.

"We need to go back to a default assumption that things are going to be fixed," he said. "A circular economy based more around services and maintaining the products that we've already got would be much better for everyone."

— Rachel Sanders

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

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Reader feedback

Last week, in a piece on recycled Coca-Cola bottles, we incorrectly said all provinces and territories have bottle deposits for plastic bottles except for Nunavut and Ontario. In fact, Manitoba does not, as a number of you wrote in to tell us, including Bonnie Thiessen of Winnipeg.

She said Manitoba does charge an extra fee on plastic bottles "but their environmental efforts stop there. Customers do not get refunds; Manitoba has recycle bins and citizens are simply told to recycle. Our empty beer containers can be returned for refund at licensed beer vendors but, other than that, there is no incentive to return used beverage containers…. It would be relatively easy to incentivize an efficient recycling program and clean up much of our litter. All recyclable beverage containers should be returnable, and the fee that was charged when the beverage was purchased refunded. Just look at what other cities and provinces are doing!"

The online version of the article has been corrected.

David Walton wrote: "We should go back to refilling glass bottles. Beer in glass bottles has a return rate in the high 90 per cent range because of the deposit fee. When I was a kid, we would collect bottles and return them to get the deposit money. I think and I may be wrong that P.E.I. only allows soft drinks in returnable bottles so I think that could be mandated across Canada."

In fact, that was true in P.E.I. until 2008, when the can and plastic bottle ban was lifted, something that environmental advocates called "a huge step backwards." Currently, in that province, there is a 10-cent deposit on non-alcoholic beverage containers, and a refund of five cents when they're returned.

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The Big Picture: A 'reverse vending machine' for recycling bottles

A woman trades a plastic bottle for transit credit at a reverse vending machine
A commuter trades a plastic bottle for transit credit at a reverse vending machine at the Cipro underground metro station in Rome, Italy, on Oct. 8, 2019. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, we wrote about Coca-Cola making all its 500-millilitre sparkling beverage bottles in Canada out of recycled PET, and how bottle deposits improve recycling rates. After that, my Toronto neighbour Diana Vela wrote me about seeing a machine in Medellin, Colombia, "that receives plastic bottles in exchange for credit to use in their public transit system. Not only does it create an incentive to recycle but also gives the poorest a better access to transportation.... Wouldn't it be nice to bring that idea here?" 

The machine is called a "reverse vending machine," and there are similar initiatives around the world. Rome collected five million bottles through eight metro stations (one is seen in the photo above) between 2019 and 2021, and expanded the program to city markets. The transit system in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, launched a machine-free, low-tech plastic-bottles-for-bus-tickets program in 2018

While bottles aren't accepted on Canadian transit systems, Coca-Cola is promoting its recycled plastic bottles in Toronto by letting people exchange plastic bottles to play games in a pop-up arcade between Nov. 10 and 12.

— Emily Chung

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Scientists warn Earth warming faster than expected — due to reduction in ship pollution

A satellite image shows clouds and what look like contrails in near parallel lines above a dark-blue ocean.
This photo from March 4, 2009, shows the skies over the northeast Pacific Ocean streaked with clouds that formed around the particles in ship exhaust. (MODIS/NASA)

The past five months have shattered global temperature records, taking scientists by surprise. Many are asking why.

A new study published in Oxford Open Climate Change, led by renowned U.S. climate scientist James Hansen, suggests one of the main drivers has been an unintentional global geoengineering experiment: the reduction of ship tracks. 

As commercial ships move across the ocean, they emit exhaust that includes sulphur. This can contribute to the formation of marine clouds through aerosols — also known as ship tracks (seen in the photo above) — which radiate heat back into space.

However, in 2020, as part of an effort to curb the harmful aerosol pollution released by these ships, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) imposed strict regulations on shipping, reducing sulphur content in fuel from 3.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent.

The reduction in marine clouds has allowed more heat to be absorbed into the oceans, accelerating an energy imbalance, where more heat is being trapped than being released. 

In a call with reporters last week, Hansen said Earth's energy imbalance is much higher than a decade ago. 

"That imbalance has now doubled. That's why global warming will accelerate. That's why global melting will accelerate," he said.

When asked if this was evidence of the extreme warming we've seen over the past five months, Hansen replied: "Yeah. Absolutely it is." 

Hansen said the IMO regulations, which were designed to reduce aerosol pollution, will have a long-term warming effect on the climate, pushing global temperatures 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and potentially even 2 C — the threshold governments said they would try to stay within under the Paris Accord — even faster. 

"The 1.5-degree limit is deader than a doornail," said Hansen, whose 1988 U.S. congressional testimony on climate change helped sound the alarm of global warming. "And the two-degree limit can be rescued, only with the help of purposeful actions."

Before the reduction of sulphur in ships, the only way to calculate the effects was through modelling, Leon Simons, a climate scientist based in the Netherlands and co-author of the recent study, told CBC News, which is likely why scientists didn't see the rapid warming coming.

But since the reduction of sulphur in shipping, we're seeing the effects play out in real time.

"We've never done the experiment of reducing emissions over the oceans by 80 per cent before," Simons said. "So now we are starting to have the evidence. We now have about 3½ years of evidence of what happens … to the oceans if you reduce sulphur emissions from shipping by 80 per cent."

But not everyone agrees.

U.S. climatologist Michael Mann wrote a blog about the paper's findings, saying, "[Hansen] and his co-authors are very much out of the mainstream with their newly published paper in the journal Oxford Open Climate Change. That's fine, healthy skepticism is a valuable thing in science. But the standard is high when you're challenging the prevailing scientific understanding, and I don't think they've met that standard, by a longshot."

But Simons said Mann "doesn't address the most important scientific data, which is NASA satellite data."

Michael Diamond, an assistant professor at Florida State University's department of earth, ocean and atmospheric science who was not involved with the study, said he agrees that the IMO regulations "will have a long-term warming effect on Earth's climate, as will other reductions in air pollution, like the big air quality improvements we've seen over China since 2013."

In an email to CBC News, Diamond said that he agrees aerosol cooling has masked roughly one-third of warming from greenhouse gases.

"However, it's important to emphasize that we are not doomed to experience all of that 'masked' warming as we clean up air pollution, if we also reduce concentrations of shorter-lived greenhouse gases like methane at the same time."

The paper's authors suggest that there are only three ways to try to halt this rapid warming:

  • A global increasing price on greenhouse gas emissions, which would include carbon taxes.

  • Co-operation between eastern and Western countries "in a way that accommodates developing world needs."

  • Efforts to reduce Earth's radiation imbalance, which could include some form of geoengineering.

Geoengineering efforts could include solar radiation management — such as spraying salty droplets into the air from sailboats — which could bounce the sun's rays back into space, which would in turn cause cooling.

But the authors noted vigorous research is needed to ensure there are no unintended consequences.

"There are ways to do it, and not just putting aerosols in the stratosphere," Hansen said. "Rather than describe those efforts as 'threatening' geoengineering, we have to recognize we're geoengineering the planet right now."

Nicole Mortillaro

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said all provinces and territories have bottle deposits for plastic bottles except for Nunavut and Ontario. In fact, Manitoba also does not have deposits on plastic bottles.
    Nov 03, 2023 6:49 AM ET