By: Rubén Ramos
You bought it, but manufacturers want the final say on who fixes it. Is it really yours?
Not an easy fix
How is it possible that cars in Havana are still running after more than half a century of use? Through a combination of necessity and a whole lot of ingenuity, dedicated craftsmen have devised ways to keep cars running by fixing and tinkering their own makeshift parts. It begs the question, with so many more resources available to us, why do our cars last barely more than a decade?
“We have a broken relationship with our stuff,” said Nathan Proctor, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Right to Repair campaign. “We buy more than we need, more than the Earth can source. We treat it as if it’s essentially disposable and all of that is sort of artificial. We need to get back to taking care and fixing stuff.” For him, the premise behind the right to repair movement is pretty simple: “you bought it, you own it, you should be able to fix it.”
The right to repair movement has been steadily gaining momentum across the US , as more consumers start to question the seemingly short life of their products and the limitations manufacturers set to their repair. Companies limit the owner’s capacity to employ third-party parts and support in hopes of driving up sales, going so far as threatening to void warranties if repairs are not conducted directly by the manufacturer.
Back in 2018, the Federal Trade Commission issued a letter about this, aimed at major manufacturers, explaining that “companies can’t void a consumer’s warranty or deny warranty coverage solely because the consumer uses a part made by someone else or gets someone not authorized by the company to perform service on the product.” Even so, companies are disinclined to plainly concede repair rights to consumers.
Apple, for instance, has been repeatedly criticized regarding the repairability of its products. Since last year, the company has slowly opened up to allowing third-party repairs. Still, service is only offered through a scarce amount of authorized dealers, all of which are required to work with original parts. Likewise, tractor manufacturer John Deere has also made a push against the right to repair by arguing that the automatization software employed on their tractors is licensed, and therefore not owned by the farmers. The company has cited security concerns in allowing parties other than themselves to directly interact with the software employed on its machines.
Right to repair advocates argue these types of limitations only hurt business, the environment, and the consumer. “The policy that we are getting behind is the state-level reforms which require manufacturers to share all the product service information to sell spare parts and special tools to provide access to repair software exactly on the same terms that their own dealers have access to those things,” explained Proctor, who believes it’s of utmost importance to “prevent the monopolization of repair from becoming an incentive to push people into overpriced repair services or replacing devices that they could be fixed.”
The Mounting Problem of E-Waste
“The electronic waste problem is huge,”says iFixit CEO, Kyle Wiens, “if you put every blue whale alive today on one side of a scale and one year of US e-waste (6.9 million tons) on the other, the e-waste would be heavier.” For years, the United States has depended on foreign markets to handle most of our electronic waste. Around late 2017, China announced stronger regulations regarding the conditions of recyclable materials they would receive, effectively leaving the US stranded with millions of tons of unprocessed waste.
Without proper sorting and handling of these materials, the fate of most E-WASTE is to be mixed in with the rest of our trash in a landfill. As Wiens explains, “The economy is dependent on the availability of cheap, raw materials for growth. Presently, we take those materials, make them into short-lived products, use them for a while, and throw them away — a one-way journey from the dirt to the dump. In short, we’re living take-make-dispose lives in a world with finite resources.”
In theory, discarded electronic items are recollected for Goodwill or recycling. However, investigations headed by the Basel Action Network, an e-waste watchdog group, revealed that some businesses end up exporting electronics instead of processing them for recycling. Although much of the equipment ends up being properly dismantled, many others are refurbished and sent to foreign markets where they’re sold as second-hand goods. The problem is that not every item received is salvageable. So, what happens then to all the electronics that aren’t deemed useful?
Unfortunately, a large amount of unusable tech ends up in poorer countries where cheap labor and scarce environmental protections allow for the unregulated extraction of reusable metals. In Ghana, for example, electronics that can’t be sold as second-hand goods end up in impromptu landfills where e-waste plastic is burned to collect the metals inside. The pollution generated by the burning takes a toll on both the environment and the health of those collecting the metals. The costs associated with health issues and future cleanup of the affected waters and land far outweigh the monetary benefits.
Wealth in Discarded Electronics
Alternatives marketed as ecologically friendly choices, such as the technologies employed on electric cars, require rare metals that are not cheap to source.
Obtaining these materials is not only costly, but it comes with lasting consequences on the environment. Well after mining operations are completed, thousands of tons of hazardous materials and wastewater are left behind.
The economic and ecological costs of digging up new materials can quickly add up.
In the Jiangxi Province of China alone, the cost of cleaning up the byproducts of rare earth mining is estimated to be around $5 billion.
E-waste is full of these rare earth minerals, as well as gold, silver, and other valuable metals.
The World Economic Forum estimates the value of e-waste around $62.5 billion annually. This number represents some 50 million tonnes of e-waste a year from which only 20% gets processed for recycling.
By 2050, discarded tech alone will represent some 120 tons of trash per year. As raw materials become harder to source, appropriate waste management becomes ever more crucial.
Manufacturing of recycling tech is expected to become a billion-dollar industry on itself by 2025. Many companies are looking for ways to employ robotics and automatization to strip apart and sort technological waste.
The UN Environment Programme has worked in reaching an international compromise on the proper handling of e-waste. However, the results of any implementation born of these initiatives are yet to be seen.
Reframing Our Sense of Value
Many products marketed as environmentally conscious and recyclable alternatives end up being merely greenwashed options that are neither properly sourced nor disposed of. “Manufacturers sometimes use recycling to kind of paper over how ecologically damaging their practices are,” explained Proctor, “they still do a lot of ecological damage to extract the resources, mine, smelt, ship, and make a piece of electronics.” Although recycling has for decades held the spotlight on our efforts towards a cleaner environment, it can’t by itself resolve all of our waste management issues.
As consumers, we need to reevaluate our relationship with technologies, if not merely for the environmental cost, but also the quantifiable wastefulness of labor and value in these products. “There are better and more circular practices (than recycling), and repair and reuse is at the center,” said the right to repair advocate, who considers recycling the least beneficial circular practice based on the amount of energy used in processing discarded tech back into raw materials. For this reason, promoting a repair and reuse culture might be the most significant practice we as consumers can immediately work towards.
Regulations are already being set in the European Union for both appliances and electronic devices. Beginning in 2021, manufacturers will be required to support equipment by making spare parts available for a set minimum of years. Similar laws are also being discussed in the United States — Massachusetts already cleared 2019’s Digital Right to Repair Act, which now awaits a vote in the state legislature. If it passes, the bill will be among the first to “establish fair and reasonable terms for providing diagnostic, service or repair information and services for digital electronic products.”
While we wait for these initiatives to become law, there’s a lot you can do now to get involved. Non-profit groups like Fixit Clinic or Repair Café offer community organized team-ups in which to share knowledge, tools, and skills to repair broken equipment. You can look for a local chapter, or if there’s no group in your area, you might want to take it upon yourself to organize one in your community. If you’re an avid DIY-er, sites like iFixit can offer valuable information, including free repair guides on all kinds of electronics and appliances, from phones to automobiles. Repairability makes for longer product life, which translates to both more value and less waste. Your electronics not only last longer, but their useful life doesn’t have to end with you.
The more repairable a piece of tech the likelier it will retain value on secondary markets as second-hand goods or for parts. At its core, the right to repair is not merely an ecological or economical movement, but a fight for age-old rights and values of self-reliance and ingenuity. As Kyle Wiens affirmed, “A circular economy — based on renewable energy sources, reuse, repair, and remanufacturing — closes the resource loop, bringing the economy full circle. By developing products that are made to be made again, we can grow the economy to new heights without destroying the environment.”